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Antonicelli v. Rodriguez

Supreme Court of Illinois

February 16, 2018

ANGELA ANTONICELLI, Appellee,
v.
DANIEL JUAN RODRIGUEZ et al. (Karl Browder et al., Appellants).

          JUSTICE KILBRIDE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Freeman, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          KILBRIDE JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 At issue in this appeal is whether the circuit court of Cook County erroneously entered a finding of a good-faith settlement agreement under section 2 of the Joint Tortfeasor Contribution Act (Contribution Act) (740 ILCS 100/2 (West 2012)). This case involves a personal injury action for damages arising out of a motor vehicle accident. The trial court granted a motion filed by defendant Daniel Rodriguez and entered a finding of a good-faith settlement with plaintiff, Angela Antonicelli. The trial court's order included the dismissal of a counterclaim for contribution filed by defendants, Karl Browder, Chicago Tube and Iron Company, and Trillium Staffing, d/b/a Trillium Drivers Solutions. The appellate court affirmed. 2017 IL App (1st) 153532-U. We affirm.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 On November 2, 2013, at about 1:30 a.m., plaintiff, Angela Antonicelli, was a passenger in a vehicle traveling eastbound on I-88 near Naperville. Three of the eastbound lanes were closed due to construction. Defendant Karl Browder was operating a semi tractor and trailer on behalf of defendants Chicago Tube and Iron Company and Trillium Staffing, d/b/a Trillium Drivers Solutions (hereinafter the Browder defendants), traveling eastbound behind Antonicelli's vehicle.

         ¶ 4 At the time of the occurrence, defendant Daniel Rodriguez was under the influence of cocaine. While traveling westbound, Rodriguez made an improper U-turn through the median on I-88 and collided with Antonicelli's vehicle, causing it to rotate clockwise. Browder was unable to stop his semi and slammed into the passenger side door of Antonicelli's vehicle. Antonicelli suffered severe permanent injuries.

         ¶ 5 Rodriguez pled guilty to aggravated driving under the influence of drugs and is currently serving a sentence of seven years of imprisonment. Rodriguez acknowledged he was at fault but claimed he had no recollection of the accident because of severe brain injuries he suffered in the collision.

         ¶ 6 Antonicelli brought this cause of action alleging the defendants' negligence caused her extensive personal injuries and seeking damages. Antonicelli entered into a settlement with Rodriguez for $20, 000, the limit of his insurance coverage. Rodriguez filed a motion for a finding of a good-faith settlement with Antonicelli. Rodriguez indicated to the court that the insurance policy limits are his only material asset and that settlement was contingent on the underinsured motorist insurer's consent to the settlement and release of subrogation rights.

         ¶ 7 The nonsettling Browder defendants then filed a counterclaim for contribution against Rodriguez. The counterclaim alleged that Rodriguez's conduct was intentional rather than negligent and that his intentional conduct caused the accident and Antonicelli's injuries.

         ¶ 8 After briefing and oral argument, the trial court granted Rodriguez's petition for a finding of good faith and dismissal. Specifically, the court (i) found the monetary settlement of the insurance policy limit of $20, 000 was made in good faith, (ii) dismissed with prejudice Antonicelli's complaint against Rodriguez, (iii) dismissed the nonsettling Browder defendants' counterclaim for contribution as barred by the finding of good faith, and (iv) allowed the nonsettling Browder defendants the right to credit $20, 000 against any future judgment in Antonicelli's favor.

         ¶ 9 The Browder defendants appealed, arguing that Rodriguez acted intentionally in causing the accident and that section 2 of the Contribution Act (740 ILCS 100/2 (2012)) does not permit a finding of a good-faith settlement with an intentional tortfeasor. The Browder defendants also contended that the trial court's finding of good faith was erroneous because it failed to consider their rights under section 2-1117 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-1117 (West 2012)), limiting liability of minimally responsible defendants.

         ¶ 10 The appellate court affirmed, holding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by basing its decision solely on the negligence allegations of the plaintiff's complaint. The appellate court also concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by failing to consider the rights of the Browder defendants under section 2-1117 of the Code. 2017 IL App (1st) 153532-U. This court allowed the Browder defendants' petition for leave to appeal pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 315 (eff. Mar. 15, 2016).

         ¶ 11 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 12 In this appeal, the nonsettling Browder defendants argue that the appellate court erred in affirming the trial court's order granting defendant Rodriguez's petition for a finding of a good-faith settlement agreement with Antonicelli under section 2 of the Contribution Act (740 ILCS 100/2 (West 2012)). Section 2 of the Contribution Act provides:

"Right of Contribution. (a) Except as otherwise provided in this Act, where 2 or more persons are subject to liability in tort arising out of the same injury to person or property, or the same wrongful death, there is a right of contribution among them, even though judgment has not been entered against any or all of them.
(b)The right of contribution exists only in favor of a tortfeasor who has paid more than his pro rata share of the common liability, and his total recovery is limited to the amount paid by him in excess of his pro rata share. No tortfeasor is liable to make contribution beyond his own pro rata share of the common liability.
(c) When a release or covenant not to sue or not to enforce judgment is given in good faith to one or more persons liable in tort arising out of the same injury or the same wrongful death, it does not discharge any of the other tortfeasors from liability for the injury or wrongful death unless its terms so provide but it reduces the recovery on any claim against the others to the extent of any amount stated in the release or the covenant, or in the amount of the consideration actually paid for it, whichever is greater.
(d) The tortfeasor who settles with a claimant pursuant to paragraph (c) is discharged from all liability for any contribution to any other tortfeasor.
(e) A tortfeasor who settles with a claimant pursuant to paragraph (c) is not entitled to recover contribution from another tortfeasor whose liability is not extinguished by the settlement.
(f) Anyone who, by payment, has discharged in full or in part the liability of a tortfeasor and has thereby discharged in full his obligation to the tortfeasor, is subrogated to the tortfeasor's right of contribution. This provision does not affect any right of contribution nor any right of subrogation arising from any other relationship." 740 ILCS 100/2 (West 2012).

         ¶ 13 This court has recognized that "the Contribution Act seeks to promote two important public policies-the encouragement of settlements and the equitable apportionment of damages among tortfeasors." Johnson v. United Airlines, 203 Ill.2d 121, 135 (2003) (citing Dubina v. Mesirow Realty Development, Inc., 197 Ill.2d 185, 193-94 (2001), and In re Guardianship of Babb, 162 Ill.2d 153, 171 (1994)). Specifically, the Contribution Act "promotes settlement by providing that a defendant who enters a good-faith settlement with the plaintiff is discharged from any contribution liability to a nonsettling defendant." BHI Corp. v. Litgen Concrete Cutting & Coring Co., 214 Ill.2d 356, 365 (2005) (citing Babb, 162 Ill.2d at 171). The Contribution Act also ensures equitable apportionment of damages among tortfeasors by creating a right of contribution among defendants and " 'by providing that the amount that the plaintiff recovers on a claim against any other nonsettling tortfeasors will be reduced or set off by the amount stated in the settlement agreement.' " BHI Corp., 214 Ill.2d at 365 (quoting Babb, 162 Ill.2d at 171, citing 740 ILCS 100/2(b), (c) (West 1992)).

         ¶ 14 A settling joint tortfeasor who settles in good faith with the injured party is discharged from contribution liability and may not recover contribution from a nonsettling tortfeasor. 740 ILCS 100/2(d), (e) (West 2012). This court has consistently recognized that the only limitation the Contribution Act places on a settlement is that the settlement be in "good faith." 740 ILCS 100/2(c) (West 2012); Johnson, 203 Ill.2d at 128; Dubina, 197 Ill.2d at 191; Babb, 162 Ill.2d at 161.

         ¶ 15 The Browder defendants argue that the trial and appellate courts erred in refusing to address the issue of whether an "intentional tortfeasor" can enter into a good-faith settlement under section 2 of the Contribution Act. The Browder defendants contend that Rodriguez acted intentionally in causing the accident because he was intoxicated at the time. According to the Browder defendants, the trial court did not have authority under the Contribution Act to make a good-faith settlement finding because Rodriguez was an "intentional tortfeasor."

         ¶ 16 The Browder defendants cite no authority whatsoever for the proposition that an accident caused by an intoxicated driver constitutes a de facto "intentional tort." Indeed, our research has uncovered no case in any federal or state court that has made such a holding. Moreover, the Browder defendants admit that their sole purpose for objecting to this settlement is to keep Rodriguez on the jury verdict form for an apportionment of joint and several liability under section 2-1117 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-1117 (West 2012)). We find no legal basis in the Browder defendants' claim that Rodriguez is an intentional tortfeasor, as alleged in their counterclaim.

         ¶ 17 We also reject the Browder defendants' argument because their counterclaim is irrelevant to the determination of good faith in this case. The Browder defendants conceded in the trial court that their counterclaim constitutes an independent cause of action, a stand-alone claim. If a codefendant brings a third-party action against another codefendant under a different theory of liability, the basis for the contributor's liability still rests on his liability to the original plaintiff. As the appellate court correctly determined, "because the Browder co-defendants' counterclaims alleging intentional conduct are separate and independent causes of action, they do not change the nature of Antonicelli's complaint, which alleged only negligent conduct." 2017 IL App (1st) 153532-U, ¶ 25; see also, Wilson v. Tromly, 404 Ill. 307, 309-10 (1949) ("A counterclaim is an independent cause of action."); Health Cost Controls v. Sevilla, 307 Ill.App.3d 582, 589 (1999) (a counterclaim is "an independent cause of action, separate from a complaint"). Antonicelli alleged in her amended complaint that Rodriguez and all other defendants engaged in negligent conduct, not intentional conduct. The Browder defendants' counterclaim did not change the nature of Antonicelli's cause of action.

         ¶ 18 Here, the Browder defendants were subject to liability as alleged joint tortfeasors at the time of Antonicelli's injury. The Contribution Act provides a remedy for a joint tortfeasor to seek contribution against fellow joint tortfeasors who have not paid their pro rata share of the common liability. 740 ILCS 100/2 (West 2012). Two or more persons are jointly and severally liable under the circumstances "creating primary accountability, directly produc[ing] a single, indivisible injury by their concurrent negligence." Storen v. City of Chicago, 373 Ill. 530, 533 (1940). In essence, "[t]he existence of a single, indivisible injury is necessary to establish that multiple defendants are jointly and severally liable." Sakellariadis v. Campbell, 391 Ill.App.3d 795, 801 (2009). This is true regardless of whether the defendants acted in concert or without a common purpose or duty. Burke v. 12 Rothschild's Liquor Mart, Inc., 148 Ill.2d 429, 438 (1992).

         ¶ 19 Whether a person is subject to liability in tort for purposes of the Contribution Act is determined at the time of the injury. Doyle v. Rhodes, 101 Ill.2d 1, 10-11 (1984). In this case, Antonicelli suffered injuries as a result of a multivehicle accident where all of the defendants were drivers or employers of defendant drivers. Antonicelli's indivisible bodily injury is allegedly the result of all defendants' actions even though they did not act in concert. The Browder defendants were thus subject to liability in tort at the time of the injury. This is precisely the situation where the Contribution Act is applicable to joint tortfeasors.

         ¶ 20 We conclude that the trial and appellate courts properly disregarded the Browder defendants' counterclaim alleging that Rodriguez behaved intentionally. We therefore need not address the Browder defendants' contention that a trial court may not make a finding of good faith in favor of an intentional tortfeasor. We now ...


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