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Martinelli v. City of Chicago

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Fourth Division

April 25, 2013

DONALD MARTINELLI and ANNETTE MARTINELLI, Plaintiffs-Appellees,
v.
THE CITY OF CHICAGO. Defendant-Appellant (SBC, n/k/a AT&T, Intervenor).

Held [*]

A verdict for plaintiffs was affirmed in an action arising from one plaintiff’s loss of a leg when he was struck by a motorist at a jobsite where employees of defendant city were working on underground water lines and plaintiff was engaged in protecting adjacent telecommunication cables from harm, since the evidence showed that just before the accident, the city crew removed the barricades and flagman present for safety purposes at the site when the crew went on an extended lunch break and that negligence was the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, No. 06-L-11846; the Hon. Irwin J. Solganick, Judge, presiding.

Stephen R. Patton, Corporation Counsel, of Chicago (Benna Ruth Solomon, Myriam Zreczny Kasper, Sara K. Hornstra, and Stephen G. Collins, Assistant Corporation Counsel, of counsel), for appellant.

Michael W. Rathsack, of Law Office of Michael W. Rathsack, and Mark E. McNabola, of McNabola Law Group, both of Chicago, for appellees.

Panel PRESIDING JUSTICE LAVIN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Epstein and Pucinski concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

LAVIN PRESIDING JUSTICE

¶ 1 On a daily basis in the City of Chicago (City), there are numerous roadway construction projects that have an impact upon the safe flow of automobiles and pedestrians, as citizens, workers and visitors travel across its many streets. Maintenance of the City's vast and aging infrastructure is a never-ending process, with public and private employees often working together to erect, maintain or repair streets, bridges, viaducts and the like, along with sewer and water systems. This case reveals unfortunate consequences of poor planning and execution of such projects.

¶ 2 On February 2, 2002, plaintiff Donald Martinelli (Martinelli) and his coworker, Raymond Santiago, worked for a telecommunications company and were assisting City workers who were involved in a somewhat mundane water department job on Milwaukee Avenue, near its intersection with Leavitt Street. During the morning construction work, the City had established certain safety provisions including barricades (in the form of large vehicles) and flagmen, but those protections were removed when City workers went on an extended lunch break, leaving the telecommunications workers in the largely unprotected workzone. During this time an admittedly distracted motorist, Oscar Soto, lost control of his vehicle, glanced off Santiago's truck and pinned Martinelli to the bumper of his truck, traumatically amputating his left leg above the knee. Martinelli and his wife sued the City for negligence in the manner and method that it conducted its construction work and the attendant safety considerations.[1] At trial, the jury was instructed to consider whether the City was negligent for (1) blocking the southeast bound lanes of traffic, forcing traffic to drive into the undivided northwest lane; (2) failing to erect a temporary traffic control zone with advanced warning in order to create an unambiguous path around the work zone; (3) failing to use flagmen and barricades; and (4) failing to create a buffer zone between workers and motorists. The jury returned a verdict of $6, 952, 000 for Martinelli's injuries and his wife's loss of consortium. The jury also answered in the negative a special interrogatory that sought to blame the distracted driver as being the "sole proximate cause" of Martinelli's injury. The City appeals, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court should have entered a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (judgment n.o.v.) because the distracted driver was the sole proximate cause of the accident and because the City should have been found to be immune for any failure to provide traffic control devices or warning signs. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

¶ 3 BACKGROUND

¶ 4 Over the course of this week-long jury trial, the parties presented numerous witnesses. Plaintiffs testified on their own behalf as well as presenting the testimony of Santiago and Soto. Plaintiffs also presented medical testimony, expert testimony from a civil engineer, and the testimony of several employees of the City's water department, including Michael Dwyer, Neil Kelly and Donald Stewart. In addition, the City presented the testimony of an investigator from the Chicago police department, an expert in traffic crash reconstruction, and Sonia Kalfas, who witnessed the incident.

¶ 5 Milwaukee Avenue is a diagonal, arterial thoroughfare that runs in a northwest/southeast direction in the City. It intersects Leavitt Street in the City's Bucktown neighborhood, only a short distance from a viaduct at Bloomingdale Avenue. On February 2, 2002, the City was engaged in water department road work in this general area. Specifically, the City was attempting to perform a "cut and seal" job, a relatively common procedure in which a hole would be dug through the pavement, allowing access to water lines beneath the street, one of which was to be cut and sealed. Thereafter, the pavement would be repaired and the road restored to its previous condition. In virtually every such job, the City coordinates with the appropriate telecommunications or power company to make sure that the City's activities do not impair any lines or equipment maintained by those entities. Martinelli and Santiago worked for SBC and were engaged in marking locations for cables that were beneath the area where the work was to be undertaken. The City's seven-person crew from the water department consisted of a foreman, three laborers, a dump truck driver and a hoisting engineer. It was later augmented by another engineer who operated a ram hoe which was capable of cutting through the cobblestone which lay under the asphalt surface of the roadway.

¶ 6 There was conflicting testimony at trial regarding when Dwyer, the City foreman, arrived on the jobsite. According to Santiago, in the late morning, he and Martinelli were already in the process of identifying the location of cables (which would alert the City digger) when Dwyer arrived. Santiago said Dwyer gave him and Martinelli the specific area in which the City intended to do its work, which led them to finish their work. This work involved more than just painting on the asphalt road surface, however, as Martinelli had to go underground via a manhole to identify the specific location of the cables and send a radio signal to Santiago, who would mark the proverbial spot. Their SBC vehicles were nearby, with strobe lights operating. Martinelli and Santiago also put some orange traffic cones in the area where they were working and erected a temporary cage around the manhole in which Martinelli was working.

¶ 7 Dwyer's testimony regarding his arrival time at the Milwaukee jobsite was less than consistent. He testified that his worksheets indicated he and his crew were engaged in a job in the DePaul neighborhood, on Kenmore near Belden Avenue earlier that morning. His worksheets also indicated that his men took a lunch break at a fast food location at Wellington and Sheffield, but only after they had arrived at the Milwaukee jobsite. This restaurant, however, was located north of the Milwaukee job AND north of the Kenmore job. The crew's circumnavigation would have thus involved finishing up at Kenmore, driving south to the Milwaukee job, working briefly, and then driving back, past the Kenmore job, to arrive at the restaurant at Wellington and Sheffield. As for his own arrival at the Milwaukee site, Dwyer repeatedly testified that he did not remember being at the Milwaukee jobsite until after the accident had occurred, despite his worksheets' indication that he was there from 11:29 a.m. to 12:05 p.m. and despite the fact that Santiago testified that Dwyer was at the scene giving him information about the location of the water department's work well before the accident occurred. At one point, Dwyer even testified that he was unaware that the SBC employees were at the jobsite until he and his crew "pulled up and saw the fire truck and ambulance." In response to questions about the inconsistent entries in his records, Dwyer admitted that these were sometimes "fudged." Furthermore, despite several instances where Dwyer claimed a lack of recollection of events prior to the involved accident, as described infra, he acknowledged that his crew was involved in barricading and flagging the work area before lunch.

ΒΆ 8 The City had acquired a permit to perform this work that required the City to use barricades and flagmen as needed. Dwyer testified that he would not have exposed his workers to any potential injury and that he made sure that the work site was safe in various ways, including the placement of large City vehicles as barriers to entering the viaduct in the southeast bound lane. He also testified that his laborers would have been on both sides of the viaduct to slow traffic as it approached the viaduct from both sides. In addition, Dwyer testified that as the City's foreman, he was supposed to ensure that pedestrian and vehicular traffic continued at all times on the date in question, without road closures. He further testified that his laborers, clad in fluorescent vests, were directing traffic before lunch by placing big trucks in a way to alert drivers that they could not drive in that direction and directing drivers around the work area. He admitted ...


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