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Godinez v. City of Chicago

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

October 30, 2019

JANET GODINEZ, on behalf of herself and as administrator of the estate of her brother, HERIBERTO GODINEZ, Deceased, Plaintiff,
THE CITY OF CHICAGO, et al., Defendants.


          MARY M. ROWLAND, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Janet Godinez filed this action against Defendant City of Chicago (“the City”) and individually named Defendant Police Officers for conduct, she alleges, resulted in the death of her 26-year-old brother Heriberto Godinez on July 20, 2015. Plaintiff asserts excessive force, failure to intervene, supervisory liability and conspiracy claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as well as a Monell policy claim and Illinois state law claims for wrongful death, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The City moves for summary judgment on Plaintiff's Illinois wrongful death claim and the Monell policy claim (Counts V and VI). For the reasons stated below, the Court denies the City's motion for summary judgment [279] as to these claims.


         Summary judgment is proper where “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A genuine dispute as to any material fact exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The substantive law controls which facts are material. Id.

         The party seeking summary judgment has the burden of establishing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323 (1986). After a “properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the adverse party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250 (quotation omitted). Construing the evidence and facts supported by the record in favor of the non-moving party, the Court gives the non-moving party “the benefit of reasonable inferences from the evidence, but not speculative inferences in [its] favor.” White v. City of Chi., 829 F.3d 837, 841 (7th Cir. 2016) (internal citations omitted). “The controlling question is whether a reasonable trier of fact could find in favor of the non-moving party on the evidence submitted in support of and opposition to the motion for summary judgment.” Id. (citation omitted).


         I. Illinois Wrongful Death Claim

         Under the Illinois Wrongful Death Act, 740 ILCS 180/1, a decedent's estate may bring a suit against a party “whose alleged ‘wrongful act, neglect or default' caused the death.” Paredes v. Cook Cty., No. 15 C 3644, 2018 WL 4955865, at *3 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 12, 2018) (quoting 740 ILCS 180/1). A plaintiff must prove causation in order to prevail on a wrongful death claim. Id. “Proximate cause is a question of fact for the jury unless there is no material issue regarding the matter or only one conclusion is clearly evident.” Williams v. Univ. of Chicago Hosps., 179 Ill.2d 80, 88-89, 688 N.E.2d 130, 134 (1997).

         The City moves for summary judgment against Plaintiff on the wrongful death claim because “Plaintiff cannot produce admissible evidence from which a jury could reasonably find that Godinez's death was caused by the actions of police officers.” (Dkt. 280 at 4). Defendants argue that because Plaintiff's retained cause of death experts, forensic pathologist Michael Baden, M.D., and neuropathologist, Jan Leestma, M.D., should be barred, Plaintiff cannot meet the essential element of causation.

         Concurrently with the instant motion, the City filed motions to exclude the testimony of Drs. Leestma and Baden. For the reasons described in separate rulings, (Dkts. 400 & 401), the Court will allow both Drs. Leestma and Baden to testify as to cause of death. The Court found those experts qualified to opine as to the cause of death, that their methodology is sound, and that their testimony will be helpful to the jury. The weight to be given to the doctors' conclusions are questions for the jury to decide and can be tested on cross-examination at trial. Gayton v. McCoy, 593 F.3d 610, 619 (7th Cir. 2010) (“[W]hether the cause put forth by a qualified expert actually proximately caused the injury at issue is a question for the jury at trial; a district court should only evaluate whether an expert's conclusion on causation was reasoned and based on a reliable methodology.”); Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., 509 U.S. 579, 596 (1993) (“Vigorous cross-examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof are the traditional and appropriate means of attacking shaky but admissible evidence.”).

         Because the Court will allow the testimony of Drs. Leestma and Baden as qualified and reliable experts, this case presents the classic “battle of the experts” on the cause of death issue. Defendants will present expert testimony from forensic pathologists that the cause of Mr. Godinez's death was alcohol and cocaine intoxication, (dkt. 280 at 4) (citing Def. SOF ¶¶44, 57); whereas, Plaintiffs' experts will testify that the cause of death was positional asphyxia and spinal cord injury caused by Defendant Officers' use of force. (Dkt. 344 at 4-6) (citing Pl. SOAF ¶¶8, 11, 13-14). It is not for this Court to make credibility determinations on the expert opinions on summary judgment. Manjarrez v. Georgia-Pac. LLC, No. 12 C 1257, 2013 WL 3754861, at *5 (N.D. Ill. July 16, 2013). This “battle of the experts” creates a genuine issue of material fact. Chamberlain Grp., Inc. v. Lear Corp., 756 F.Supp.2d 938, 951 (N.D.Ill.2010) (“It is indeed true that a ‘battle of the experts' can preclude summary judgment”). Given the conflicting expert testimony, and drawing all reasonable inferences against the moving party, the Court finds the issue of causation to be appropriately left to the trier of fact and denies summary judgment as to the wrongful death claim.[1]

         II. Monell Claim

         A. Monell Standard

         A municipality can be liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for a constitutional violation. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018 (1978). Liability arises “only where the municipality itself causes the constitutional violation at issue.” City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 385, 109 S.Ct. 1197 (1989) (emphasis in original). Therefore under Monell, the “critical question” is whether a municipal policy or custom “gave rise to the harm (that is, caused it), or if ...

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