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Quick takes on Thursday's Illinois Supreme Court opinions

Our panel of leading appellate attorneys review Thursday's Illinois Supreme Court opinions in the civil case Nelson v. Artley and the criminal case People v. Stapinski.

CIVIL

Nelson v. Artley

By Alyssa M. Reiter, Williams, Montgomery & John Ltd.

The liability of a rental car company who obtains a certificate of self-insurance from the Secretary of State is limited to the same minimum coverage provisions applicable to rental car companies who meet their financial responsibility obligations through purchasing an insurance policy. 

Mr. Nelson was injured by an Enterprise rental car driven by Mr. Artley, who was uninsured. Nelson sued Artley, resulting in a default judgment of $600,000.  Nelson brought a supplementary action against Enterprise.

Enterprise asserted various affirmative defenses, the most pertinent dealing with its financial exposure.  Enterprise argued that because it was self-insured, its total financial responsibility per occurrence was $100,000 (the statutory minimum coverage requirements for insurance).  Because $75,000 already had been paid or allotted to other claims arising out of the same incident, the circuit court issued a turnover order of $25,000 to Nelson. 

On appeal, the First District reversed, rejecting a previous appellate court decision (Fellhauer) which had interpreted the governing financial responsibility laws.  The appellate court held that where a rental car company elects to meet Illinois’s mandatory liability insurance requirements by obtaining a certificate of self-insurance, the company is obligated to pay the full amount of judgments entered against drivers of its vehicles.

On review, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the appellate court and affirmed the circuit court judgment.  The Court analyzed Section 7-601(a) of the Illinois Safety and Family Financial Responsibility Law, which mandates liability insurance coverage for motor vehicles used on a public highway.  The purpose of the insurance requirement is to protect the public by securing payment of damages.  But it requires only certain minimum levels of coverage and not full payment for losses.  The same is true of the special financial responsibility provision enacted for owners of for-rent vehicles (625 ILCS 5/9-101).  The statute “simply insures that injured persons have some coverage when otherwise there would be none.”

Notably, the Court was persuaded by the fact that the 2005 Fellhauer decision had never been challenged in the past decade.  Also, the legislature had chosen not to amend the statute after the Fellhauer court interpreted it.  It is therefore presumed that the legislature acquiesced in the court’s statement of legislative intent. 

CRIMINAL

People v. Stapinski

By Kerry J. Bryson, Office of the State Appellate Defender

After a substance suspected to be ketamine was found in a package addressed to defendant, defendant was asked to cooperate with the police to apprehend the persons to whom defendant was to deliver the ketamine and to assist with other drug investigations. The police told defendant he would not be prosecuted for possession of ketamine if he cooperated. Defendant was not given Miranda warnings prior to this conversation with the police.

Defendant gave the police the names of two people to whom he was supposed to deliver the ketamine, and ultimately participated in a controlled delivery resulting in their arrest. Both individuals were successfully prosecuted for possession of ketamine. Defendant was unable to work further as a confidential informant for the police because word on the street was that he was a “snitch.”

Approximately one year later, defendant was indicted for possession of the ketamine at issue. Defendant sought dismissal on due process grounds and under the cooperation agreement. The circuit court granted that motion finding that there was a valid cooperation agreement that was violated and that defendant’s due process rights were violated because he had incriminated himself based upon the promises that were made and had fulfilled his part of the bargain.

The appellate court, in a two-to-one decision, reversed. The majority concluded that dismissal was an improper remedy and that suppression of evidence would be more appropriate because defendant could still receive a fair trial on the possession charge if his statements were suppressed.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the appellate court majority. The Court first clarified that once a due process violation is found, the trial court’s decision as to the appropriate remedy is reviewed for an abuse of discretion.

On the merits, the Court noted the differences between cooperation agreements and plea agreements. In a plea agreement, defendant waives the right to trial for a specific benefit. With a cooperation agreement, the parties agree that defendant’s cooperation entitles him to immunity, i.e., no charges will be brought at all. Cooperation agreements are construed under contract principles and enforced through the due process clause of the 14th amendment. A trial court has the authority to dismiss an indictment where due process has been denied. Here, defendant’s substantive due process rights were violated when the State breached the agreement and charged defendant, and thus dismissal was a proper remedy.

The Court rejected the State’s argument that dismissal was improper because prosecutors are not bound by agreements or promises made by law enforcement officers. Whether the cooperation agreement was approved by the State’s Attorney was not important. The agreement could be enforced on due process grounds regardless because defendant relied on the agreement and incriminated himself in the process of meeting his obligations under it.

Posted on October 8, 2015 by Chris Bonjean
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