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Miranda v. The Walsh Group, Ltd.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, First Division

September 30, 2013

FRANCISCO MIRANDA, as Father and Next Friend of Marco Antonio Miranda, a Minor, Plaintiff,
v.
THE WALSH GROUP, LTD., and WALSH CONSTRUCTION COMPANY, d/b/a Walsh Construction of Illinois, Defendants and Third-Party Plaintiffs-Appellants (Kesha A. Geans, Third-Party Defendant-Appellee).

Held [1]

In an action arising from a vehicular collision that occurred when an intoxicated driver struck a concrete barrier placed along the street by a construction company, crossed the center line, struck plaintiff’s oncoming vehicle, and seriously injured his minor son, the trial court’s finding that the settlement between plaintiff and the drunk driver for the $20, 000 policy limit of her policy was not made in bad faith was upheld, notwithstanding the company’s contentions that the court failed to consider the settlement amount in relation to the drunk driver’s potential liability and the probability of recovery, and that releasing the drunk driver would force the company to absorb an unfair portion of plaintiff’s damages, since the fact that a settlement favors one party over another is not necessarily an indication of bad faith, and under the circumstances, including the drunk driver’s lack of assets and the lack of any evidence of wrongful conduct, collusion or fraud, no abuse of discretion occurred.

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, No. 11-L-007572; the Hon. William E. Gomolinski, Judge, presiding.

Christensen & Ehret, LLP, of Chicago (Mark E. Christensen, Katherine A. Jones, Nathan A. Hall, and Christopher C. Cassidy, of counsel), for appellants.

Swope Law Offices, LLC, of Schererville, Indiana (Shawn Swope, Justin Treasure, and Annica Downing, of counsel), for appellee

Justice Cunningham concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

HOFFMAN, PRESIDING JUSTICE

¶1 The defendants and third-party plaintiffs, The Walsh Group, Ltd., Walsh Construction Company, d/b/a Walsh Construction of Illinois (Walsh), appealed the circuit court order which found that the settlement between the plaintiff, Francisco Miranda, as father and next friend of Marco Antonio Miranda, and the third-party defendant, Kesha A. Geans, for injuries that Marco Miranda sustained following a vehicular accident with Geans was made in good faith. The settlement awarded the plaintiff $20, 000, which was the policy limit of Geans' auto insurance policy issued by Universal Casualty Company (Universal). Walsh contends that the circuit court abused its discretion in approving the settlement because it failed to consider the amount of the settlement in relation to the probability of recovery and Geans' potential legal liability. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

¶2 On September 24, 2006, Geans, who was driving while intoxicated, lost control of her vehicle near the intersection of Ogden Avenue and Taylor Street. She struck a concrete jersey barrier located to the right of her vehicle, causing her vehicle to overturn and slide across the center line of Ogden Avenue. Geans' vehicle collided with the Miranda family's car, injuring several members of the family. Marco Antonio Miranda, who was 12 years old at the time of the collision, suffered serious brain injuries which have left him permanently disabled. Geans, whose blood alcohol level was 0.229, nearly three times the legal limit of 0.08, eventually pled guilty to one felony count of fourth degree aggravated driving under the influence.

¶3 On December 12, 2008, Universal paid the limit of Geans' $20, 000 policy to the plaintiff in exchange for a full release of all claims against Geans and Universal. The release states in relevant part:

"As further consideration for the payment of said sum Claimant agrees to indemnify, protect and save harmless the parties [Geans and Universal] hereby released from all judgments, costs and expenses whatsoever arising on account of any action, claim or demand by [Marco Antonio Miranda], or by any person acting for or on behalf of said minor in respect of the aforesaid injuries or damages."

¶4 Subsequently, on November 29, 2010, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint against Walsh, which placed the concrete jersey barrier that Geans struck along Ogden Avenue as part of its construction project to expand a nearby medical center. The complaint stated two nearly identical counts of negligence against Walsh, alleging that it created a dangerous condition by placing the barrier alongside its work site in the direct pathway of oncoming traffic. On February 22, 2011, Walsh filed a third-party complaint for contribution against Geans pursuant to the Illinois Joint Tortfeasor Contribution Act (Act) (740 ILCS 100/1 et seq. (West 2010)), alleging that Geans' reckless driving was the sole proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries.

¶5 On May 3, 2011, Geans filed a motion for involuntary dismissal pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2010)), claiming that her presuit settlement with the plaintiff effectively ended her liability as a contributing tortfeasor. On September 16, 2011, Geans filed a motion for a finding that the settlement was made in good faith, as required under the Act. 740 ILCS 100/2 (West 2010). The court allowed limited discovery, granting Walsh permission to depose Geans but denying its other discovery requests. At her deposition, Geans testified that she had no recollection of the events leading up to the collision or of the collision itself. She recalled drinking at a social club on Roosevelt Road at some point on the evening of September 23, 2006. Her next memory was waking up in the hospital handcuffed to her bed. She did not recall what she drank, when she left the club, the route she drove home, the collision, whether she struck the jersey barricade before crossing the center line, or the collision with the plaintiff's vehicle. Geans also testified that she: resided in Chicago Housing Authority property with her 11-year-old child; attended community college classes with the intent of becoming a teacher; had been unemployed since November 2010; last earned $15 per hour in an administrative job; received $455 biweekly from unemployment insurance; and had no assets, such as property, bank accounts, pensions, or savings accounts. Geans further testified that she had had a medical condition, hidradenitis suppurativa, since she was a child, which required frequent surgeries and prevented her from working or attending college for periods of time.

ΒΆ6 On July 24, 2012, after hearing the parties' arguments, the circuit court stated that, under the Act, it was required to consider the conduct of the party requesting the good-faith finding and the public policies that inform the Act. The court determined that there was no evidence of wrongful conduct, collusion, or fraud on the part of Geans or Universal in the presuit settlement. The court also identified the two public policies behind the Act: the encouragement of settlement and the equitable apportionment of damages among tortfeasors. The court noted that the fact that a settlement is advantageous to a party is not necessarily an indication of bad faith. The court further stated that the disparity between the settlement amount and the damages sought in the complaint is not an accurate measure of good faith. The court concluded that, because there was no ...


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