Roberts v. Alexandria Transp., Inc.

Decision Date05 August 2020
Docket NumberNos. 19-2414 & 19-2395,s. 19-2414 & 19-2395
Citation968 F.3d 794
Parties Thomas ROBERTS and Diane Roberts, Plaintiffs, v. ALEXANDRIA TRANSPORTATION, INC., et al., Defendants. Alexandria Transportation, Inc., et al., Third-Party Plaintiffs-Appellants, Cross-Appellees, v. Safety International, LLC, Third-Party Defendant-Appellee, Cross-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Lori A. Vanderlaan, Attorney, Best, Vanderlaan & Harrington, Chicago, IL, for Plaintiffs-Appellees.

David P. Bub, Brandon B. Copeland, Kelsey McLean, Attorneys, Brown & James, P.C., St. Louis, MO, for Defendant-Appellant.

Before Easterbrook, Brennan, and St. Eve, Circuit Judges.

St. Eve, Circuit Judge.

At a road construction site in Madison County, Illinois, a flagger abruptly turned his sign from "SLOW" to "STOP." Thomas Roberts slammed on his brakes, and Alexandre Solomakha rear-ended him, causing Roberts serious injury and prompting a lawsuit against Solomakha and transportation companies Alexandria Transportation, Inc. and Alex Express, LLC.1 The Alex Parties filed a third-party complaint for contribution against the general contractor for the construction site, Edwards-Kamalduski ("E-K"), and a subcontractor, Safety International, LLC ("Safety"). E-K settled with the plaintiffs, and the district court dismissed it from the Alex Parties’ contribution action with prejudice. The Alex Parties later settled with the plaintiffs, as well.

With E-K out of the picture, though, the Alex Parties’ case becomes more complicated. The Alex Parties contend that the Illinois Joint Tortfeasor Contribution Act, 740 ILCS 100 (the "Contribution Act"), allows for the court to redistribute E-K's share of liability as determined by a jury between the Alex Parties and Safety, but Safety disagrees. The controversy surrounds the meaning of a particular phrase in the statute"unless the obligation of one or more of the joint tortfeasors is uncollectable." We can find no decision of an Illinois court that has addressed whether the "obligation" of a settling party is "uncollectable" pursuant to 740 ILCS 100/3. Rather than decide this issue in the first instance, we respectfully request that the Illinois Supreme Court do so.

I. Background

Thomas Roberts was driving a truck westbound through a construction zone on Interstate 70 in Madison County, Illinois, when a work zone flagger suddenly turned a "SLOW" sign to "STOP." When Roberts abruptly slammed on his brakes, Solomakha's tractor rear-ended Roberts's truck. Roberts’ injuries resulted in medical bills totaling over $500,000.

Plaintiffs Thomas and Diane Roberts filed a complaint against the Alex Parties for negligence under Illinois common law in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, which sat in diversity jurisdiction. The Alex Parties, in turn, filed a third-party complaint for contribution against E-K, the general contractor for the road construction project, and Safety, the subcontractor E-K retained through an oral contract to manage (some disputed aspect of) the construction site's worker safety program. The plaintiffs settled with E-K for $50,000, and E-K filed a motion for a good faith finding pursuant to the Contribution Act. The district court granted this motion and dismissed E-K with prejudice. The Alex Parties then settled with the plaintiffs for a confidential amount. That settlement released claims against Safety, as well.

The Alex Parties continued with their contribution action against Safety, which filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing it owed no duty to the plaintiffs based on its oral contract with E-K. The district court denied this motion, and the Alex Parties and Safety proceeded to trial to resolve the Alex Parties’ contribution claim. Before trial, the district court determined that, as a matter of Illinois law, the Alex Parties, Safety, and E-K all must appear on the verdict form so that the jury could adequately apportion fault among every party, even though the court had dismissed E-K. The court also determined, based on its interpretation of the Contribution Act, the share of liability that the jury assigned to E-K should not be redistributed between the Alex Parties and Safety on a pro rata basis—instead, Safety would pay to the Alex Parties only what the jury determined was its portion of fault, and the Alex Parties would remain liable for E-K's entire share along with its own.

At trial, the Alex Parties and Safety disputed the scope of the oral contract in which Safety agreed to provide services to E-K. Safety, on one hand, contended that it agreed to provide only services related to workers’ compensation insurance. The Alex Parties, meanwhile, introduced evidence depicting a broader agreement covering all site safety issues. The president of Safety—Mike Sicking—admitted at trial that he authored the Site Specific Safety Plan ("the Plan"), which E-K submitted to the Illinois Department of Transportation. The Plan identified Sicking as the job Safety Director and the "primary" contact "to help assist in day-to-day safety issues." The Plan also stated that "traffic control shall be in accordance with the applicable sections of the standard specs for the road and bridge construction, [and] the applicable guidelines contained in the National Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways" (the "MUTCD"). Sicking admitted that he had agreed to perform a job hazard analysis for each job description on the site, establish corresponding safety procedures, and perform monthly audits to monitor compliance. He sent a written proposal to E-K offering services for $1,400 a month, and received that amount for his services. Sicking explained, though, that E-K did not take advantage of all the services offered. Sicking admitted, for example, that he proposed to offer in-service safety training to E-K's employees, but that he never provided such training.

Sicking admitted that if he visited the construction site and saw something unsafe, he had the authority to stop that practice. Thus, if the saw the site was missing a "flagger-ahead" sign, he would have said something about it because it would have presented a safety issue. A flagger failing to give proper notice to oncoming drivers to stop was another such issue where he would have intervened. Sicking further admitted he was not on site on a daily basis and he never confirmed whether the flaggers were compliant with the Plan.

In support of Safety's theory, Sicking testified that the oral contract between Safety and E-K did not involve traffic control or flagger training, as Sicking claimed he did not get involved in flagging operations. Kevin Edwards, on behalf of E-K, testified that the oral contract between E-K and Safety did not provide for flagger training or designing traffic control procedures because the flagger union trains the flaggers and it was the duty of the contractor (in this case, E-K) to have traffic control procedures in place.

After the conclusion of the trial, the jury determined the respective percentage of fault for each party as follows:

10% Safety International
15% The Alex Parties
75% Edwards-Kamalduski

The Alex Parties were therefore on the hook for 90% of the total liability for the accident—their share plus E-K's. Safety, meanwhile, was only obligated to contribute 10%. The district court denied the Alex Partiespost-trial motion to alter or amend the judgment under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 59(e) and 52(b), which asked the court to revisit its determination of the reallocation issue. The court also denied Safety's post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), where Safety renewed its argument that the oral contract it entered into with E-K did not create a duty to the plaintiffs.

The Alex Parties appealed, contesting the district court's resolution of the reallocation issue. Safety cross-appealed, once again arguing that the district court erred in determining it owed a duty to the plaintiffs.

II. Discussion

A federal court sitting in diversity jurisdiction must apply the substantive law of the state in which its sits. Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins , 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938). The parties agree Illinois law governs this matter. We review a district court's interpretation of state law de novo and the application of the legal standard to the facts for clear error. e360 Insight, Inc. v. Spamhaus Project , 658 F.3d 637, 648 (7th Cir. 2011).

We review a district court's ruling on a Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law de novo, construing "the trial evidence ‘strictly in favor of the party who prevailed before the jury.’ " Thorne v. Member Select Ins. Co. , 882 F.3d 642, 644 (7th Cir. 2018) (quoting Empress Casino Joliet Corp. v. Balmoral Racing Club, Inc. , 831 F.3d 815, 822 (7th Cir. 2016) ). "We give the nonmovant ‘the benefit of every inference’ while refraining from weighing for ourselves the credibility of evidence and testimony." Ruiz-Cortez v. City of Chicago , 931 F.3d 592, 601 (7th Cir. 2019) (quoting EEOC v. Costco Wholesale Corp. , 903 F.3d 618, 621 (7th Cir. 2018) ). Accordingly, "we must affirm unless there is ‘no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party.’ " J.K.J. v. Polk Cty. , 960 F.3d 367, 378 (7th Cir. 2020) (en banc) (quoting Woodward v. Corr. Med. Servs. of Ill., Inc. , 368 F.3d 917, 926 (7th Cir. 2004) ).

A. Safety's Duty to the Plaintiffs

We begin our analysis with Safety's cross-appeal, in which Safety challenges whether the Alex Parties presented sufficient evidence at trial to show that the oral contract between Safety and E-K created a duty that Safety owed to the plaintiffs to ensure the safety of the construction site. If there is not a sufficient evidentiary basis for the existence of this duty, the Alex Parties’ contribution action against Safety is doomed.

Under Illinois law, "the negligent performance of contractual...

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