Sperl v. Henry

CourtSupreme Court of Illinois
Citation2018 IL 123132,429 Ill.Dec. 426,124 N.E.3d 936
Docket NumberDocket No. 123132
Parties Susan D. SPERL v. DeAn HENRY et al. (C.H. Robinson Company et al., Appellants, v. Toad L. Dragonfly Express, Inc., Appellee).
Decision Date29 November 2018

2018 IL 123132
124 N.E.3d 936
429 Ill.Dec.

Susan D. SPERL
DeAn HENRY et al. (C.H. Robinson Company et al., Appellants, v. Toad L. Dragonfly Express, Inc., Appellee).

Docket No. 123132

Supreme Court of Illinois.

Opinion filed November 29, 2018

124 N.E.3d 938

Don R. Sampen, Thomas H. Ryerson, and Edward M. Kay, of Clausen Miller, P.C., of Chicago, for appellants.

Thomas P. Burke, David M. Lewin, and Aaron DeAngelis, of Querrey & Harrow, Ltd., of Chicago, for appellee.

JUSTICE KILBRIDE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

429 Ill.Dec. 428

¶ 1 In this case, we consider whether a vicariously liable defendant has a right of contribution against another vicariously liable defendant when their common liability arises from the negligent conduct of the same agent. We hold that the Joint Tortfeasor Contribution Act (Contribution Act or Act) ( 740 ILCS 100/0.01 et seq. (West 2012) ) provides a right of contribution in the specific circumstances presented here. Accordingly, we reverse the appellate court's judgment.


¶ 3 This is a contribution action between two vicariously liable defendants, C.H. Robinson Company and other related corporations (CHR) and Toad L. Dragonfly Express, Inc. (Dragonfly), arising out of a multiple-vehicle accident. CHR is a logistics company and freight broker that contracts with licensed motor carriers to transport goods for its customers. CHR entered into a contract with Jewel Food Stores to purchase, store, and arrange for transportation of produce to Jewel stores. At that time, DeAn Henry owned a semi-tractor that she leased to Dragonfly, a federally licensed motor carrier.

429 Ill.Dec. 429
124 N.E.3d 939

¶ 4 Henry was allowed to use Dragonfly's carrier authority to book and deliver loads. She, therefore, contacted CHR and agreed to deliver a load of potatoes from Idaho to CHR's Bolingbrook, Illinois, warehouse for repackaging and shipment to Jewel stores. In the course of delivering the potatoes, Henry was driving the tractor-trailer northbound on Interstate 55. As she approached Plainfield, Illinois, Henry noticed that the vehicles ahead of her were stopped, but she was unable to stop her tractor-trailer in time and ran over several vehicles. Joseph Sperl and Thomas Sanders died, and William Taluc was seriously injured in the collision.

¶ 5 Susan Sperl, individually and as executor of the estate of Joseph Sperl; Annette Sanders, individually and as administrator of the estate of Thomas Sanders; and William and Skye Taluc filed separate lawsuits against Henry, Dragonfly, and CHR for wrongful death, survival, and personal injuries based on Henry's negligent operation of the truck. The separate actions were later consolidated for trial. Henry admitted negligence and liability. Dragonfly admitted liability and a "united" negligence with Henry. CHR denied liability and filed a claim for contribution against Henry and Dragonfly.

¶ 6 At trial, CHR argued it could not be held vicariously liable for Henry's negligence under the doctrine of respondeat superior because the evidence was insufficient to establish an agency relationship. During the jury instruction conference, CHR's contribution claim was severed from the wrongful death, survival, and personal injury actions. CHR submitted a proposed verdict form asking the jury to allocate fault between Henry, Dragonfly, and CHR under section 2-1117 of the Code of Civil Procedure ( 735 ILCS 5/2-1117 (West 2008) ), but the trial court rejected that proposed verdict form.

¶ 7 The jury returned a verdict for each of the plaintiffs and specifically found that Henry was CHR's agent at the time of the accident. CHR was, therefore, vicariously liable for the plaintiffs' injuries under the doctrine of respondeat superior . The jury awarded damages in the three consolidated actions totaling $23,775,000, jointly and severally, against Henry, CHR, and Dragonfly.

¶ 8 On appeal, CHR contended that the evidence did not support the jury's finding of an agency relationship between CHR and Henry. CHR also argued that the trial court erred in refusing its proposed verdict form asking the jury to allocate fault between Henry, Dragonfly, and CHR. The appellate court held that several of the factors for determining whether an agency relationship exists, including the two most pivotal ones, indicated that Henry was acting as CHR's agent when the accident occurred. Accordingly, the jury's finding that CHR had an agency relationship with Henry was not against the manifest weight of the evidence. Sperl v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. , 408 Ill. App. 3d 1051, 1056-60, 349 Ill.Dec. 269, 946 N.E.2d 463 (2011).

¶ 9 In rejecting CHR's claim that Henry and Dragonfly should have been included on the verdict form for allocating fault under section 2-1117 of the Code of Civil Procedure, the appellate court noted that section 2-1117 does not apply if liability among the tortfeasors cannot be apportioned. CHR's liability could not be apportioned between it and Henry because CHR's liability was based entirely upon the doctrine of respondeat superior rather than its own negligence. In those circumstances, a basis exists for indemnity but not for apportioning damages between the principal and the agent. Sperl , 408 Ill. App. 3d at 1060, 349 Ill.Dec. 269, 946 N.E.2d 463 (citing

429 Ill.Dec. 430
124 N.E.3d 940

American National Bank & Trust Co. v. Columbus-Cuneo-Cabrini Medical Center , 154 Ill. 2d 347, 353, 181 Ill.Dec. 917, 609 N.E.2d 285 (1992) ). CHR's liability could also not be apportioned with Dragonfly because the agency relationship made CHR entirely liable for Henry's negligent conduct. The appellate court observed in passing that CHR may potentially seek contribution from Dragonfly but held that the trial court properly denied the proposed verdict form seeking to allocate fault. Sperl , 408 Ill. App. 3d at 1061, 349 Ill.Dec. 269, 946 N.E.2d 463. Accordingly, the trial court's judgment was affirmed. Sperl , 408 Ill. App. 3d at 1061, 349 Ill.Dec. 269, 946 N.E.2d 463.

¶ 10 CHR paid the judgments in full, totaling more than $28 million, including postjudgment interest. Each plaintiff executed a satisfaction of judgment stating that he or she had "received full satisfaction and payment from [CHR]," including accrued interest, and requested the clerk of court to "cancel and discharge the judgment."

¶ 11 CHR then obtained leave of the trial court to file the amended consolidated cross-claim for contribution against Dragonfly at issue in this appeal. In count I, CHR alleged it was not at fault but Dragonfly was negligent in several respects. CHR asserted that it had paid more than its pro rata share of the common liability and was entitled to contribution from Dragonfly under sections 2 and 3 of the Contribution Act. ( 740 ILCS 100/2, 3 (West 2010) ). CHR asked the trial court to award it contribution based on the court's determination of Dragonfly's fault. In count II, CHR alleged that Henry, Dragonfly, and CHR were found jointly and severally liable but Henry's share of the liability was "substantially uncollectable." CHR and Dragonfly later stipulated that "Henry has no personal assets, and never had personal assets, from which any judgment against her could have been collected." CHR alleged that it and Dragonfly were required to share Henry's uncollectable portion of the liability. CHR, therefore, asked the trial court to determine the uncollectable share of the judgments based on Henry's fault and to award CHR contribution against Dragonfly accordingly. In count III, CHR asserted that it had a right to contribution, even if Dragonfly's liability was vicarious, because the parties would be equally liable in those circumstances but CHR paid the entire amount of the judgments. CHR alleged that "[i]n the absence of requiring contribution by Dragonfly, a serious injustice will occur." CHR, therefore, asked the trial court to determine whether Dragonfly's liability was vicarious and to award contribution based on that finding.

¶ 12 After the trial court denied Dragonfly's motion to dismiss, CHR asked the court to re-empanel the original jury to resolve its cross-claim for contribution. The trial court denied that request, noting that CHR failed to object to dismissal of the jury following the trial or to alert the trial court of the need to keep the jury for consideration of the contribution claim. The trial court also observed that the jurors most likely would not have sufficient memory of the evidence to consider the contribution claim because the verdicts were entered over four years previously. Following that ruling, the parties agreed to submit trial briefs on the issues, including references to the trial record. The trial court agreed that a trial on the briefs using the record from the underlying trial "was the best of several imperfect alternatives."

¶ 13 Based on the parties' briefs and the record of the underlying trial, the trial court ruled that "CHR and Dragonfly engaged in conduct that equally contributed to the cause of the accident at issue." The

429 Ill.Dec....

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