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Bullet Express, Inc. v. New Way Logistics, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Fifth Division

December 30, 2016

BULLET EXPRESS, INC., Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
NEW WAY LOGISTICS, INC., Defendant-Appellant Tom Stankiewicz, Defendant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 14 CH 962, The Honorable Brigid Mary McGrath, Judge Presiding.

          GORDON PRESIDING JUSTICE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Hall and Reyes concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          GORDON PRESIDING JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 The instant appeal arises from the trial court's finding, after a bench trial, that defendant New Way Logistics, Inc., was liable to plaintiff Bullet Express, Inc., for tortious interference with a prospective economic advantage. The trial court's finding was based on defendant's conduct in picking up and refusing to deliver two cargo loads that plaintiff had hired defendant to deliver, which defendant did in an attempt to force plaintiff to pay defendant funds that plaintiff allegedly owed defendant for previous deliveries. Defendant appeals the trial court's finding, as well as the trial court's imposition of punitive damages. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 I. Complaint

         ¶ 4 On January 17, 2014, plaintiff filed a five-count verified complaint against defendant and Tom Stankiewicz, [1] defendant's principal. Plaintiff's complaint alleges that plaintiff was an Illinois corporation that "operated as an expedited long haul carrier utilizing independent contractors such as [defendant to deliver goods]. Under [plaintiff's] business model, [plaintiff] provides express and emergency transportation services of small, pallet-sized shipments or smaller for its customers that require immediate pick-up and delivery." On November 12, 2013, plaintiff and defendant entered into a lease agreement whereby defendant agreed to lease four vans to plaintiff and to provide drivers to transport shipments as dispatched by plaintiff.

         ¶ 5 On January 3, 2014, plaintiff received an emergency request from Bronco Freight Systems (Bronco) to transport a shipment from South Elgin, Illinois, to Eufala, Alabama, "with the express direction that the pallet be delivered at the destination on January 4, 2014 by 8:00 a.m. without fail." After receiving this request, plaintiff assigned the shipment to defendant for delivery via one of the vans leased to plaintiff. On the same day, defendant's driver picked up the shipment in South Elgin, Illinois.

         ¶ 6 Also on January 3, 2014, plaintiff received a request from Landstar Express America, Inc. (Landstar), to transport a shipment from Michigan City, Indiana, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, "for immediate delivery." After receiving this request, plaintiff assigned the shipment to defendant for delivery via one of the vans leased to plaintiff. On the same day, defendant's driver picked up the shipment in Michigan City, Indiana.

         ¶ 7 However, "after picking up the Landstar Shipment and the Bronco Shipment, [defendant] refused to deliver the shipments as directed by [plaintiff] and, instead, took the Landstar Shipment and the Bronco Shipment hostage by keeping the two shipments at the parking lot outside [defendant's] location in Niles, Illinois." Stankiewicz, defendant's principal, supplied the purported reason for keeping the shipments on January 4, 2014, when he contacted plaintiff "and demanded that [plaintiff] pay [defendant] over $25, 550.00 for services performed under the [lease agreement] despite the fact that [defendant] had only performed $19, 019.81 of services and despite the fact that its payments were not yet due under the Agreement." The complaint alleges that the past November, plaintiff had received a "Notice of Assignment, " which directed it to forward all payments due to defendant to a bill factoring company. Plaintiff had forwarded two payments to the factoring company, but was later informed that the factoring company had "misplaced the payments, " meaning that plaintiff had not received credit. Plaintiff "informed [defendant] that it was ready[, ] willing[, ] and able to replace the checks but, instead, Defendants commandeered the two shipments."

         ¶ 8 On January 4, 2014, plaintiff informed defendant that the two shipments had a value of $78, 000 and $200, 000, respectively, "and that they needed to be delivered immediately or [plaintiff] would lose Landstar and Bronco as customers." However, "despite [defendant's] actual knowledge that its decision to hold the two expedited shipments subjected [plaintiff] to substantial liability and the likely loss of its customers Bronco and Landstar, [defendant] persisted in its intentional decision to hold the Bronco Shipment and the Landstar Shipment hostage." The complaint alleges that, on information and belief, the two shipments remained on defendant's vans as of the date of the filing of the complaint.

         ¶ 9 The complaint alleges five counts against defendant and Stankiewicz, its principal, including counts for replevin, breach of contract, a temporary restraining order, and conversion.[2] However, only count V, for tortious interference with a prospective economic advantage, is at issue on appeal and, accordingly, that is the only count we discuss herein.

         ¶ 10 Count V alleges that as of January 3, 2014, plaintiff "had enjoyed a continuous business relationship with Landstar for over seven years and had developed personal relationships with several representatives of Landstar." Similarly, as of January 3, 2014, plaintiff "had enjoyed a continuous business relationship with Bronco and had developed personal relationships with several representatives of Bronco."[3] Count V alleges that plaintiff "reasonably expected to continue a valid business relationship with Bronco and with Landstar, " and further alleges that defendant and Stankiewicz were aware of plaintiff's reasonable expectancy of continuing the relationships with the two companies. Nevertheless, "[defendant] and Tom Stakiewicz [sic] purposefully interfered with [plaintiff's] legitimate expectancy to continue its valid business relationships with Bronco and with Landstar by intentionally and without legal or contractual justification holding the Landstar Shipment and the Bronco Shipment hostage." As a result, "[plaintiff] has and will continue to suffer damages resulting from [defendant's] and Tom Stakiewicz's [sic] wrongful actions." Accordingly, count V sought compensatory damages in excess of $50, 000, punitive damages, and attorney fees and costs.

         ¶ 11 On January 21, 2014, defendant filed an answer and counterclaim, in which defendant admitted to being assigned the two shipments and picking them up. Defendant further admitted "that [defendant] initially declined to deliver the shipments because of [plaintiff's] breach of contract[.]" Defendant also admitted "that on January 3, 2014 Krzysztoy [sic] Stojkowski[4] demanded payment of those amounts due, that [plaintiff] promised that it would make the payments, [and] that [plaintiff] has not made the payments due in breach of the parties' contract[.]" Defendant denied that plaintiff informed it of plaintiff's relationships with Bronco and Landstar and that it would likely lose those customers as a result of defendant's actions. Defendant also denied that the shipments remained on its vans.

         ¶ 12 Defendant's counterclaim, which is not at issue on appeal, alleged that on November 12, 2013, plaintiff and defendant entered into a lease for the transportation of goods in interstate commerce. Defendant alleged that it had "fully performed its obligations under the terms of the Lease and has billed [plaintiff] the sum of $28, 598.88." However, "[plaintiff] has failed to pay for the services rendered by [defendant] in material breach of the Lease." Accordingly, the counterclaim sought damages in the amount of $28, 598.88.

         ¶ 13 II. Trial

         ¶ 14 The matter proceeded to a bench trial, which was conducted on June 16 and June 17, 2015. Since the only issues on appeal concern the count for tortious interference and the award of punitive damages, we focus primarily on those facts and relate other facts as needed to provide context. As noted, while the complaint contains allegations concerning both Landstar and Bronco, at trial, plaintiff's counsel indicated that "we are going to focus mainly on" Landstar.

         ¶ 15 1. Sonja Jovanovic-Calasan

         ¶ 16 Sonja Jovanovic-Calasan testified that she is the owner of plaintiff, a company she founded in October 2007 as an expedited carrier. She founded the company with her ex-husband and, when the marriage dissolved, Jovanovic-Calasan realized that she "couldn't do it all by myself, " so she hired George Ilibasic to work with her. She explained that the company transported "like 96 percent" automobile parts, and that the company was penalized if it was not on time with its pickups and deliveries.

         ¶ 17 Jovanovic-Calasan first became aware of defendant in October 2013 when Stankiewicz called her and offered her the use of 10 sprinter vans. She informed him that plaintiff did not have enough work for 10 vans, and testified that "[h]e had absolutely no experience whatsoever, so I was a little hesitant." Nevertheless, she decided to hire four vans. Stankiewicz came to Jovanovic-Calasan's office in November 2013 for a meeting with her and Ilibasic, where Jovanovic-Calasan explained the business to Stankiewicz. Jovanovic-Calasan testified that she "emphasized how important every single shipment is for our customers. So it's all expedited. I need to know at every single time when the driver is at the pickup, when he is loaded with pieces waiting, [bill of lading (BOL)] number, when he arrives at the shippers, at the consignee, who signed for the freight. *** We track our shipments every hour on the hour for our customers, and our customers get email alerts stating where their shipment is. This is how important the shipment is in every single shipment that we haul. That's what I went through with him." Stankiewicz indicated that he understood.

         ¶ 18 Jovanovic-Calasan testified that at the beginning, she dispatched shipments to defendant personally "just because they had no experience, so I wanted to make sure everything is done correctly." In dispatching shipments to defendant, Jovanovic-Calasan communicated only with Stankiewicz because defendant's drivers did not speak English and Jovanovic-Calasan did not speak Polish. When she dispatched a shipment, she would do so via text message, communicating the details of the shipment. Once Stankiewicz received the text message, he was required to text back that he received the message, as well as another message when the driver arrived at the pickup location and when he was loaded. Jovanovic-Calasan explained that the moment that the driver arrived, she was required to call the customers and inform them that the driver was there "[b]ecause it's an expedited shipment. It's a very important shipment. It's something that needs to go fast, and that's all we have been doing for seven years, that's all I have ever done is expedited freight."

         ¶ 19 Jovanovic-Calasan testified that she left to visit her brother in Serbia on December 24, 2013, and returned on January 6, 2014. Before she left, she informed all drivers, including Stankiewicz, that she was leaving and the length of her trip. While she was away, Ilibasic was in charge. During her trip, she was awakened by a message from Ilibasic, who informed her that defendant was "saying that they never received any payment and that they are holding the freight because of nonpayment." Prior to this, Jovanovic-Calasan had not been aware that there was any payment issue with defendant.

         ¶ 20 Jovanovic-Calasan contacted Stankiewicz immediately and communicated with him through text messages, copies of which were admitted into evidence without objection. One of the text messages from Stankiewicz was dated January 4, 2014, and stated, in part: "Kris wanted to hold on to cargo over a week ago but I stopped him." Jovanovic-Calasan testified that she did not know "Kris" at the time but later learned that "Kris" was Stojkowski, Stankiewicz's partner. Prior to January 4, defendant had never threatened to hold a load hostage and Jovanovic-Calasan was not aware that defendant was going to attempt to do so. Jovanovic-Calasan's reply to Stankiewicz was: "But Tom WHY would you do that??? You know I'm coming back on [January 8]."

         ¶ 21 A later text from Stankiewicz, also dated January 4, stated: "I will not but [K]ris will contact those companies from BOLs tomorrow for sure. To let them know why he kept the cargo. Just a heads up." Upon receiving this text, Jovanovic-Calasan's understanding was that she was being threatened that defendant was going to contact her customers, Landstar and Bronco, whose shipments were being held by defendant. Stankiewicz provided her with Stojkowski's phone number, and Jovanovic-Calasan called Stojkowski and asked him to deliver the freight. She told him that she would be back that Monday and would wire the money that defendant claimed it did not receive. Jovanovic-Calasan testified that "[h]e said, 'No. Either you have three options: One, you wire me 27, 000, ' I think it was; 'two, you give me the title to your car; or three, I see you in court.' Well, I took option No. 3. I had no other option to take. It was Friday night. I can't wire anything on a *** Friday night. I can't wire anything on a Saturday. I can't wire anything on a Sunday. So it was out of my control. They waited for Friday night to take this load hostage, where I could not do anything until Monday morning."

         ¶ 22 Jovanovic-Calasan contacted Jonathan Hauger from Landstar to inform him of the delay; she testified that "Jonathan Hauger has been one of our customers for the past six years. We had a great relationship, talked constantly on the phone. So I wanted to let him know what was going on with this freight, since that freight was supposed to have already been delivered." Jovanovic-Calasan called Hauger "maybe 20 times" about the held load. She discovered that the shipment was eventually delivered and called Hauger to advise him of that; she never had another conversation with Landstar after that.

         ¶ 23 Jovanovic-Calasan testified that Landstar became plaintiff's customer in March 2008 and was a consistent customer until January 2014. She testified that "[w]e had a great relationship. We never had any issues or problems whatsoever." In the two years prior to January 2014, plaintiff had transported over 100 loads for Landstar, and between March 2008 and 2012, plaintiff had consistently transported approximately 50 loads a year for Landstar. During the six years that plaintiff provided service for Landstar, there were no gaps in which plaintiff stopped handling Landstar shipments, nor were there any disputes during that time; plaintiff was never late on any Landstar deliveries. Records of the shipments plaintiff delivered for Landstar in 2012 and 2013 were admitted into evidence over defendant's objection.[5] These records showed that in 2012, plaintiff's profit from Landstar shipments was $23, 392.87, and its 2013 profits were $21, 748.72.

         ¶ 24 After the incident, Jovanovic-Calasan attempted to contact Landstar "[n]umerous times" because "we had such a great relationship, and I did not want to lose them as a customer whatsoever, so I tried to talk to them and see what we could do to get back the business from them, but I never got any emails back. I sent emails numerous times, calls. Never nothing." Since the incident, plaintiff had not delivered any shipments for Landstar.

         ¶ 25 Jovanovic-Calasan testified that she had expected that plaintiff would continue to provide service to Landstar for a number of years; she testified that "I never expected to lose that client ever. There was no reason for us to lose him." Prior to the incident, "[w]e received a lot of calls from Landstar Denver office to cover their freight, their shipments, and ever since that happened we never received another call from them at all, never ***. We do still get their emails. We are not taken off the email list, but every time I reply, we never get any responses or anything like that."

         ¶ 26 She testified that "Landstar was one of our biggest customers from the sprinter loads, and because of *** what had happened, we did lose that Denver agent for Landstar, and this financial whole situation with lawyer costs, everything put us in a burden, so we had to change and rearrange our policy of doing freight differently."

         ¶ 27 On cross-examination, Jovanovic-Calasan testified that the text messages dispatching deliveries did not contain information identifying the customer. She further testified that plaintiff was not guaranteed any amount of business from Landstar and Landstar was free to stop using plaintiff anytime it chose to do so. On redirect, Jovanovic-Calasan reiterated that during the six years ...


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