Madison County, Illinois, inimitable as ever: “For two-and-a-half years the Lakin Law Firm has carried on a Madison County class action lawsuit with a dead plaintiff,” reports the Madison Record, which says Lakin lawyer Jeffrey Millar did not inform Circuit Judge Daniel Stack about his client’s having assumed room temperature. The defendant, American Family Insurance, eventually twigged to it, and now the Lakin firm plans to switch to a live plaintiff from Ohio so as to keep the suit going. “Millar has confirmed the death of [client Manuel Hernandez of Granite City], but he has not answered questions that American Family Insurance submitted about his knowledge of it. Millar objected to the questions, arguing to Stack that American Family Insurance should submit them not to Hernandez’s attorney but to Hernandez himself.” (Steve Korris, “Dead plaintiff should answer questions, class counsel argues”, Jul. 20)(via Insurance Coverage Blog).
So how exactly do you build a case for high damages when the alleged defamation (see Jun. 22) hasn’t dislodged you from the bench and it will be a good long while before your term expires? Well, your lawyer can talk about how you were thinking of stepping down to become a highly paid rainmaker at a Chicago law firm, and so maybe the defendant newspaper should have to compensate you for what your hired economist says is the value of that. Besides, you were thinking of securing an appointment as a federal judge. And what if the Illinois voters decide to throw you out down the road — isn’t the lost salary from that something the defendant should have to pay you for, too? (Eric Herman, “Justice’s libel suit figures his losses”, Chicago Sun-Times, Jun. 10)(via Lattman).
Judy Buckles, one of the “founders” of the Astroturf group Victims and Families United (Feb. 20, 2004, Sep. 13, 2004) has suddenly discovered that the prominent plaintiffs’ firms of Madison County may not have plaintiffs’ best interests at heart, and is suing prominent asbestos firm SimmonsCooper for allegedly shortchanging her in its representation of her and her late husband. That she’s represented by the Lakin Law Firm suggests interesting machinations afoot in the county. (Steve Gonzalez, “Victims’ advocate sues asbestos attorneys for gypping her”, Madison County Record, Jul. 13; “Pawn Shop”, Madison County Record, Jul. 16).
Class action lawyers were suing Ford Motor claiming to represent Illinois municipalities that regretted buying the popular police model. Then Ford announced that it would decline to sell the car to towns that were suing over it. Now, according to the Illinois Civil Justice League, close to 1,000 municipalities have elected to opt out of the action — one sign among several that it was ill-conceived from the start. More here, here and here (cross-posted from Point of Law).
A federal judge has declined to dismiss a lawsuit by an Illinois woman who “is suing her Wisconsin parents for maintaining an icy driveway that she blames for a fall that broke her ankle two winters ago…. Carriel Louah, 25, visited Darlington, Wis., to surprise her mother on her birthday in January 2005. But the next morning, she was injured when she slipped and fell on her parents’ driveway. …The daughter said that a letter from her mom apologizing months after the fall proves that her parents knew they had a defective gutter for years and did nothing about it.” (“Judge OKs Trial After Daughter’s Surprise Visit Home Ends In Lawsuit”, Channel3000.com, Jul. 13).
The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association has installed as its president none other than Swansea, Ill. class action lawyer Judy Cates, known to longtime Overlawyered readers for her venture into columnist-suing (Feb. 29, 2000) following the controversial Publisher’s Clearing House settlement. For one of Cates’s more recent suits, see May 4, 2004. (“She’s our poster-lawyer”, St. Clair Record, Jun. 18).
Two decisions came down yesterday, but it’s not clear if the Illinois Supreme Court recognized that it was engaging in self-parody.
In the Tri-G legal malpractice case, Tri-G’s case against its bank was dismissed with prejudice when its law firm failed to be ready to try the case. Tri-G accused its law firm of losing a lawsuit, and sought to recover the damages, including punitive damages, it would have won had the lawsuit been appropriately prosecuted. The Supreme Court held the law firm immune from paying those lost punitive damages, because “holding the [law] firm liable for the intentional or willful and wanton misconduct of a third party” would be inappropriate. (I commented on the different standards for legal and other malpractice at Point of Law.) Effectively, Illinois plaintiffs’ lawyers are now immune from malpractice claims for any failure to achieve punitive damages.
Meanwhile, the same day, in the case of Marshall v. Burger King, which we covered Aug. 3, the Illinois Supreme Court held that Burger King could be held liable for a case where the decedent plaintiff “was killed when a car driven by Fritz crashed through the wall of the Burger King restaurant where the decedent was eating and fatally injured him.” Justice McMorrow’s dissent notes:
According to the majority, a duty to protect a business invitee from the negligent driving of a third person exists where: the landowner’s property is not inherently dangerous or defective and the landowner’s own conduct has not created any risk of harm to the invitee through negligent design or construction; the landowner has complied with all applicable building codes and safety regulations; the landowner has experienced no previous incidents of any sort involving automobile-related accidents, whether similar or not; the parking lot is unremarkable, a sidewalk is present, and the invitee is inside a building behind a half-brick wall; and the only means of protecting the invitee from the negligent driving is to construct an impregnable barrier around the building that, even if possible to construct, may have a negative effect on the safety of business invitees in other circumstances. If there is an affirmative duty to protect a business invitee from out-of-control vehicles on these facts, then such a duty exists for every business which owns a building that abuts a road or parking lot.
The majority’s holding is exceptionally broad and has the potential to alter substantially the function and appearance of every city in the state. With its far-reaching implications, I do not believe that the adoption of the duty of protect, as described by the majority, is an appropriate undertaking for this court.
An example: one would not wish to be sued for defamation by the chief justice of one’s own state, as is happening at the moment to the Kane County Chronicle, which is facing a lawsuit from Illinois Supreme Court Justice Bob Thomas over a series of critical columns in the suburban paper. Noway, nohow would one wish one’s name to turn up as the defendant in such an action (Christi Parsons, “Chief justice doesn’t just get mad, he sues”, Chicago Tribune, Jun. 18).
AP reports that the Illinois Supreme Court has released $2.15 billion of the gigantic, and almost bankrupting, appeal bond (Oct. 11, 2004; Apr. 2003) Philip Morris posted for the right to successfully appeal an absurd $10.1 billion Madison County judgment. (Dec. 15, 2005 and links therein.) Another $6 billion note awaits the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the certiorari appeal.
The tale of Dr. Lenard Rutkowski: plaintiff John Murphy was caught on the stand faking his injuries, but the jury was offended by the violation of privacy from the defense’s secret videotaping of the plaintiff lifting heavy file cabinets, and awarded $5.6 million in damages for a medical error, even though a second surgery didn’t fix the problem for which he blamed the first doctor. Murphy eventually settled for $3 million, and he and his lawyer suffer no consequence for his exaggerations. Illinois, however, lost a neurosurgeon; Rutkowski’s practice was disrupted for years, and he eventually found it was cheaper to practice in a state where insurance rates were nearly 80% lower. (Berkeley Rice, Medical Economics, Jun. 2) (via Kevin MD).
The fact that Rutkowski sued his insurance company for the difference between his policy limits and the verdict shows why the ability of plaintiffs to get jackpot-sized damages on noneconomic claims has an effect on insurers and insurance prices even beyond insurance policy limits.