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Roberts v. Alexandria Transportation, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

May 14, 2018

THOMAS ROBERTS and DIANE ROBERTS, Plaintiffs,
v.
ALEXANDRIA TRANSPORTATION, INC., et al., Defendants. ALEXANDRIA TRANSPORTATION, INC., et al., Third-Party Plaintiffs,
v.
SAFETY INTERNATIONAL, LLC, Third-Party Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          J. PHIL GILBERT DISTRICT JUDGE.

         As the remaining third-party claim in this case gallops towards trial, the parties have filed briefs on a few matters. (Docs. 270, 272-73.) The gist is that third-party defendant Safety International, LLC (“Safety”) thinks that the defendants/third-party plaintiffs in this case- Alexandria Transportation, Alexandre Solomakha, and Alex Express, LLC (collectively, “Alex”)-grossly overpaid the plaintiffs in their settlement. Since Alex is now seeking contribution to that settlement from Safety as a joint tortfeasor, Safety argues that Alex should have to prove to the jury that the settlement amount was in good faith and/or reasonable- otherwise, Safety believes that they could be on the hook for more money than their pro rate share of liability would entail. Safety also argues that all settling parties-the plaintiffs, Alex, and third-party defendant Edwards-Kamadulski, LLC (“Edwards”)-should be listed on the jury verdict form so that the jury can adequately apportion fault in this case amongst every party involved in the common liability towards the plaintiffs' injuries.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Court extensively outlined the facts of this case in its order denying summary judgment (See Doc 262.) In a construction zone on I-70 westbound, Alex's freightliner smashed into the plaintiffs' car, causing severe injury. Allegedly, a traffic flagger at the site caused the accident because he failed in his duties to direct and slow down traffic. The plaintiffs-Thomas and Diane Roberts-sued Alex, and Alex then brought third-party claims against a few parties for contribution as joint tortfeasors pursuant to Illinois's Joint Tortfeasor Contribution Act, 740 ILCS 100/0.01 et seq. (Doc. 116.) These other tortfeasors include (1) Edwards, the general contractor at the construction zone; and (2) Safety, the company that Edwards hired to preside over safety-related issues at the site.

         A few years into this litigation, the plaintiffs settled with Edwards for $50, 000. (See Doc. 189.) This released Edwards from Alex's contribution claim. Alex objected to the settlement, however, arguing that it was not in good faith because the plaintiffs were seeking a total of $2 million in damages in this case-meaning Edwards's $50, 000 settlement amounted to less than 3% of the total demand. (Doc. 195.) The Court overruled Alex's objection and entered a good-faith finding of settlement. (Doc. 209.) Safety never objected to the Edwards settlement.

         In late 2017, the plaintiffs settled with Alex for an undisclosed amount. All remaining parties-the plaintiffs, Alex, and Safety-signed a stipulated dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1)(a)(ii) to dispose of the plaintiffs' claims, though Safety “denie[d] and object[ed] to the allocation of damages as set forth in the Release of All Claims” in the stipulation. (Doc. 260.) Accordingly, the only claim left in this case is Alex's third-party contribution claim against Safety.

         On the eve of trial, the parties now seek clarification on a few matters. First, Safety believes that Alex should have to prove to the jury that their settlement amount with the plaintiffs was in good faith. (Doc. 270.) Second, they argue that all of the settling parties-Alex, Edwards, and the plaintiffs-should also be listed on the jury verdict form so that the jury can adequately apportion each party's pro rata share of liability. (Id.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Since this action is rooted in diversity jurisdiction, Illinois tort law governs: a federal court sitting in diversity jurisdiction must apply the substantive law of the state in which it sits. Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938); Windy City Metal Fabricators & Supply, Inc. v. CIT Tech. Fin. Servs., Inc., 536 F.3d 663, 670 (7th Cir. 2008). Procedural matters, however, are still governed by federal law. Hanna v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460, 469-74, 85 S.Ct. 1136, 14 L.Ed.2d 8 (1965). When evaluating whether a particular state law is procedural or substantive, district courts take as their starting point the “outcome-determinative” test of Guaranty Trust Co. v. York, 326 U.S. 99, 109 (1945): whether “the outcome of the litigation in the federal court should be substantially the same, so far as legal rules determine the outcome of a litigation, as it would be if tried in a State court.”

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Verdict Form

         First, Safety believes that all of the settling parties in this case should be on the verdict form. This is an issue of substance, not procedure: state law informs the content of jury instructions, including the verdict form. Lasley v. Moss, 500 F.3d 586, 589 (7th Cir. 2007). Accordingly, the parties all agree that Illinois law applies here.

         As an initial matter, it is clear that the settling plaintiffs-Thomas and Diane Roberts- should not be on the verdict form. This trial is about Alex's third-party contribution claim against Safety-specifically, contribution towards the settlement that Alex has already made with the plaintiffs. That settlement already takes into account the plaintiffs' contributory negligence and deducts that proportion from the settlement amount, so Safety cannot “double-dip” into the Roberts' contributory negligence tub by re-installing them on the verdict form. See Barnai v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 2017 IL App (1st) 171940, ¶ 14, 93 N.E.3d 534, 539; Ewanic v. Pepper Const. Co., 305 Ill.App.3d 564, 569, 712 N.E.2d 852, 855 (1999). Conversely, however, Alex must be on the verdict form even though they have already settled with the plaintiffs: In a contribution action, the jury must be able to apportion fault between the contribution plaintiff and any contribution defendants. See Illinois Pattern Instruction 600.16.

         The third issue is the difficult one: whether Edwards should be on the verdict form. Like Safety, Edwards was a third-party contribution defendant of Alex. But Edwards settled directly with the plaintiffs, extinguishing Alex's contribution claim against Edwards. Safety nevertheless believes that Edwards should be on the verdict form so that the jury can fairly ...


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