Quick Takes on Illinois Supreme Court Opinions Issued Friday, Feb. 16
The Illinois Supreme Court handed down two opinions today, Friday, Feb. 16. The court considered whether the Cook County Circuit Court erroneously entered a finding of a good-faith settlement agreement under the Joint Tortfeasor Act in a personal injury action arising out of a car accident in Antonicelli v. Rodriguez. In People ex rel. Hartrich v. 2010 Harley-Davidson, the court addresses the application of the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment to the civil forfeiture of personal property. Leading appellate attorneys Karen DeGrand and Joanne Driscoll summarize the cases below.
By Karen Kies DeGrand, Donohue Brown Mathewson & Smyth LLC
Today the Illinois Supreme Court addressed whether, under the Contribution Act, 740 ILCS 100/2 (West 2012), the circuit court erred in entering a good-faith finding of a settlement agreement. Justice Thomas Kilbride wrote for the majority, with Justices Charles Freeman, Anne Burke and Mary Jane Theis concurring. Two specially concurring justices, Robert Thomas and Rita Garman, and one dissenter, Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier, diverged from the opinion. They discussed the impact of fault allocation on the good-faith finding analysis and, more fundamentally, whether a jury should be instructed to consider the conduct of settling defendants in apportioning liability.
The case arose from a three-vehicle accident on Interstate 88 near Naperville. Defendant Daniel Rodriguez, under the influence of cocaine, made an illegal U-turn and collided with plaintiff Angela Antonicelli’s vehicle. Defendant Karl Browder, operating a semi tractor and trailer traveling behind Antonicelli, slammed into Antonicelli’s spinning vehicle. Antonicelli suffered severe injuries, and Rodriguez is serving a sentence of seven years for aggravated driving under the influence of drugs.
Rodriguez admitted fault and settled with Antonicelli for $20,000, his insurance coverage limits. Rodriguez sought a finding of a good-faith settlement. Browder and the entity for whom he was operating the semi filed a counterclaim for contribution against Rodriguez and alleged that his conduct constituted intentional conduct that precluded a good-faith finding. The circuit court granted Rodriguez’s motion for a finding of good faith, the statutory prerequisite to extinguishing contribution liability. The court dismissed the counterclaim.
On appeal, the non-settling defendants (or “Browder defendants”) challenged the good-faith finding based on their allegations of intentional conduct and the trial court’s failure to consider the non-settling defendants’ rights to an allocation of relative fault under 735 ILCS 5/2-1117 (West 2012). In the supreme court, the Browder defendants acknowledged that they objected to the settlement to keep Rodriguez on the jury verdict form for an apportionment of joint and several liability under section 2-1117, which provides that a defendant whose fault “is less than 25% of the total fault attributable to the plaintiff, the defendants sued by the plaintiff, and any third party defendant except the plaintiff’s employer, shall be severally liable” for all damages other than the plaintiff’s past and future medically related expenses.
The settlement impacted the Browder defendants’ ability at the time of trial to have the jury consider Rodriguez’s conduct under Ready v. United/Goedecke Service, Inc., 232 Ill. 2d 369 (2008). Under Ready, defendants who have settled are not included on the verdict form for apportionment of relative fault.
The good faith inquiry begins with a finding that the settling parties have proved that they reached a legally valid settlement agreement. The burden then shifts to the party challenging the settlement to prove the absence of good faith, by showing that the settling parties engaged in wrongful conduct, collusion or fraud. A trial court makes the determination, within its discretion, based on all of the surrounding circumstances. The court also must consider whether the settlement in question conflicts with the terms of the Contribution Act or is inconsistent with the two public policies of the Act—encouraging settlements and equitable apportionment of damages among tortfeasors.
The majority disagreed that a trial court must consider the effect of a proposed settlement on a non-settling defendant’s right under section 2-1117—an impracticable procedure, in the court’s view, that would defeat the policy of encouraging settlements. The supreme court also rejected the non-settling defendants’ argument that an intoxicated driver who causes an accident is a de facto intentional tortfeasor. The court observed that the theory of the counterclaim is irrelevant. Antonicelli alleged in her amended complaint that Rodriguez, among the other defendants, engaged in negligent conduct; the non-settling defendants could not alter the plaintiff’s cause of action based on the theory of their counterclaim. The court concluded that the Browder defendants failed to meet their burden of establishing that the settlement flunked the test of good faith.
In his special concurrence, Justice Thomas noted that Illinois reviewing courts, including the supreme court, had struggled to reconcile good-faith settlements with the Contribution Act’s policy goals in the years after Ready. Thus, Justice Thomas called for the legislature to clarify whether it intended the phrase “the defendants sued by the plaintiff” in section 2-1117 to include settling defendants.
Justice Garman, also specially concurring, reiterated her dissent in Ready, in which she wrote that the holding of that decision lopsidedly favors one policy goal, the encouragement of settlements, over the other policy goal of the Contribution Act, equitable apportionment among tortfeasors.
Chief Justice Karmeier dissented; under the “shadow of Ready,” he would hold that a circuit court abuses its discretion in entering a finding of a good-faith settlement if the finding would remove the settling defendant from a verdict form for apportionment of fault. In reaching this conclusion, Justice Karmeier detailed his agreement with Justice Garman’s dissent in the Ready case and her concern that the plurality holding in Ready might actually discourage settlements. Justice Garman had observed that the exclusion of a defendant from a verdict form may encourage a plaintiff, with the more culpable defendant out of the apportionment picture, to take less culpable defendants to trial.
By Joanne R. Driscoll, Forde Law Offices LLP
A vehicle is subject to civil forfeiture if it is used with the knowledge and consent of the owner in the commission or attempted commission of certain offenses. 720 ILCS 5/36-1(a) (West 2014). Here, a motorcycle, owned by the claimant and valued at $35,000, was driven by her husband in the commission of aggravated driving under the influence (DUI) while his driver’s license was revoked for commission of a prior DUI. The claimant was a passenger. This case involves an as-applied challenge to the civil forfeiture statute based on the excessive fines clause of the United States Constitution.
In a decision authored by Justice Kilbride, a divided panel (5-2) held that there was no constitutional violation here. The court set forth the standard established by the United States Supreme Court – whether the forfeiture was grossly disproportional to the gravity of the misconduct – which it said was subsumed in the fact-intensive, three-part test that was used in People ex rel. Waller v. 1989 Ford F350 Truck, 162 Ill. 2d 78 (1994), namely, weighing: (1) the gravity of the offense against the harshness of the penalty, (2) how integral the property was in the commission of the offense, and (3) whether the criminal conduct involving the defendant property was extensive in terms of time and/or spatial use. Limiting its analysis to the first factor, which was the focus of the parties, the court began by recognizing the seriousness of the public safety threat caused by the commission of a DUI. It then examined the claimant’s degree of culpability, rejecting the claimant’s argument that she was not charged with a criminal offense and at most was negligent in allowing her husband to drive, noting that the lack of criminal charges was not a hindrance in an in rem forfeiture. The court also gave deference to the circuit court’s findings that the claimant’s culpability was more than negligent; rather, she knowingly granted consent to her husband to drive her motorcycle with knowledge about his intoxication and revoked license.
On the issue of whether the forfeiture was excessive, the court held that the claimant failed to meet her burden of presenting sufficient evidence as to the value of the motorcycle at or around the time of the forfeiture hearing. Without that evidence, and in view of its obligation to construe legislative enactments as constitutional whenever possible, the court rejected the claimant’s constitutional claim and affirmed the circuit court’s forfeiture order.
This decision drew two dissents, one by Chief Justice Karmeier and one by Justice Burke. In his extensive dissent, Justice Karmeier highlighted a number of flaws in the majority opinion and suggested that the result reached was contrary to the standards adopted and consistently followed by the courts in assessing whether in rem forfeiture contravenes the excessive fines clause. Justice Karmeier construed the forfeiture statute as applying only when the owner is driving the vehicle and committing the offense. He also provided an extensive analysis of the facts, concluding the State failed to meet its burden to support forfeiture, even if the statute applied to the claimant. He found a lack of support for the trial court’s finding that the claimant consented to her husband’s driving of the motorcycle (he also disagreed that she had abandoned that issue) or that she knew that his conduct might constitute aggravated DUI.
Justice Karmeier also took issue with the majority’s eighth amendment analysis, suggesting that it applied the standard used in criminal forfeiture proceedings rather than civil in rem proceedings. He suggested that had all three factors in the three-part test been considered (which the trial court failed to do), only the second would have supported forfeiture. He opined that in applying the first factor, the majority erred in focusing on the husband’s offense rather than the conduct of the owner, whose “real ‘offense’ was simply her poor decision” in letting her husband drive the short distance home. Lastly, Justice Karmeier criticized the court’s reliance on insufficiencies in the record, particularly where the State never challenged the valuation of the vehicle in the circuit court.
Justice Burke, writing separately, agreed with Justice Karmeier’s conclusion that the circuit court’s finding that the State had proven the elements of the civil forfeiture statute was against the manifest weight of the evidence. She also disagreed with the majority’s holding that the claimant failed to establish an eighth amendment violation. But, unlike Justice Karmeier, she would have remanded the matter with directions to hold a hearing on the claimant’s eighth amendment challenge because it was raised for the first time in a motion to reconsider the circuit court’s forfeiture order, where the only issues previously litigated were whether the statutory elements for forfeiture were established, not whether the forfeiture constituted an excessive fine. Justice Burke opined that holding the lack of a record against the claimant while rejecting her as-applied challenge on the merits violates principles of fundamental fairness and implicates due process concerns.