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$54M verdict in semi crash tops in state

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Man rear-ended on Indiana interstate; punitive award $35M

By Jordyn Reiland, Law Bulletin staff writer 

A Cook County jury has awarded more than $54 million to a man who sustained head, neck and knee injuries after a semitrailer rear-ended his vehicle on an Indiana interstate.

Plaintiffs James Denton and his wife, Theresa, of Oak Lawn, sued David L. Johnson, the truck driver, and Universal Am-Can Ltd., Universal Truckload Services Inc. and Louis Broadwell LLC, Johnson’s employers, in 2015, alleging Johnson was negligent when he failed to slow down to avoid a crash as traffic unexpectedly changed.

Theresa Denton was not in the vehicle at the time of the crash.

Reached Monday after a nearly four-week trial before Cook County Circuit Judge Lorna E. Propes, the verdict comprised $19,155,900 in compensatory damages and $35 million in punitive damages.

The verdict totaled $54,155,900.

According to John L. Kirkton of the Jury Verdict Reporter, the total verdict is higher than any Illinois auto personal-injury verdict that has previously been reported.

In his amended complaint filed in September, Denton claimed Johnson “failed to keep a proper lookout” and was driving at 40 miles and hour when he rear-ended Denton in his Jeep.

He also argued Johnson should not have been hired or retained by Universal Am-Can because of his “checkered driving record” and a felony conviction in 2004 arising out of a road-rage incident.

The suit alleged negligence; negligent hiring, retention, supervision and entrustment; willful and wanton hiring and retention; and loss of consortium.

Denton was driving south on Interstate 65 near Rensselaer, Ind., on Feb. 8, 2011, when traffic abruptly slowed because of a wrong-way driver traveling north in the interstate’s southbound lanes.

George Kallis, 88, was driving the wrong way on the highway shoulder at approximately 30 mph. He did not strike any vehicles or sustain any physical injuries.

He died about a month later for reasons unrelated to the crash.

Denton was represented by Robert J. Napleton of Motherway & Napleton LLP and Christopher T. Theisen and James M. Roche of Theisen & Roche Ltd.

Napleton said the other trucks on the highway were able to slow their rigs and bring them to a stop — except for Johnson.

“(Johnson) didn’t become aware of the wrong-way driver until after the crash,” Napleton said.

The defense argued, through the use of crash reconstruction expert, that the sole cause of the crash was Kallis, the wrong-way driver.

Napleton disagreed.

“He was the reason the traffic pattern changed, but he wasn’t the cause of the crash,” he said.

The defense also argued Johnson encountered a “hard brake” situation where he had no room on either side of the highway to move to another lane.

Denton sustained injuries to his knees, back and neck and had nine surgeries. He continues to have chronic pain syndrome related to his neck and back injuries and has to take heavy-duty narcotics to control his pain, Napleton said.

Denton was not able to return to work as a regional vice president for Mohawk Industries.

Denton and his family are “extremely gratified” for the verdict and are looking forward to moving forward from the incident, Napleton said.

The Cook County case was tried under Indiana law after the defense mounted a successful interlocutory appeal during the case’s pleading stage.

In January 2015, a three-justice panel of the 1st District Appellate Court ruled Denton was hurt in the final stage of a chain-reaction that started with Kallis’ wrong-way driving.

That opinion, Denton v. Universal Am–Can Ltd., 2015 IL App (1st) 132905, also indicated the Dentons settled with Kallis’ estate for $100,000 prior to filing their Cook County suit.

Writing for the appeals panel, Justice Terrence J. Lavin noted the differences in allocating fault between Illinois and Indiana and how they could affect an eventual award.

“In Illinois, all defendants found liable are jointly and severally liable for the plaintiff’s past and future medical expenses,” Lavin wrote.

“Indiana, by contrast, maintains that defendants can only be held severally liable for their own percentage of fault. … Moreover, Indiana law allows a defendant to prove the negligence of an absent or settling tortfeasor.”

The appeals panel explained that the defense could attempt to persuade the jury that Kallis, though a nonparty to this case, was responsible for setting the crash in motion.

Ultimately the jury in this case did not apportion any fault to Kallis. Jurors apportioned 40 percent of fault to Johnson individually and as an agent of Louis Broadwell and Universal, and 60 percent of fault to Universal for negligent hiring and/or retention.

Carlton D. Fisher and Michael J. Cunningham of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP represented the defendants. Fisher said he could not provide comment at this time.

The case is James Denton, et al., v. Universal Am-Can Ltd., et al., 15 L 1727.

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