Crash Course: Why Summary Judgment Misses the Mark in Illinois Multi-Cause Limousine Crash Collision

Crash Course: Why Summary Judgment Misses the Mark in Illinois Multi-Cause Limousine Crash Collision

Background

In Johnson v. Illinois State Toll Highway Authority [i], a limousine ride to the airport turned catastrophic when an unlicensed, speeding driver named Aaron Nash (“Nash”) missed a lane shift through a construction zone and crashed into an impact attenuator protecting a concrete barrier. The crash resulted in one fatality, and five passengers were injured, including one rendered paraplegic.

At the time of the collision, there was a construction project occurring on Interstate 90. The original maintenance of the traffic plan reflected that a continuous, concrete barrier leading to the lane shift be installed temporarily during a certain phase of construction. In addition, a total of three warning signs were to be installed at precise locations leading up to the lane shift. However, the maintenance of the traffic plan was subsequently revised to eliminate the temporary barrier and the warning signs, leaving a gap between the median and the lane shift.

 

Procedurally, How Did We Get Here?

Plaintiffs filed amended complaints asserting two theories of negligence: (1) failure to use warning signs and (2) failure to implement proper roadway barriers [ii] against the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, and various contractors and engineering firms involved in the project.

The defendants later filed separate motions for summary judgment for multiple reasons including a lack of duty and proximate cause. When it boiled down to proximate cause, the defendants argued that the limousine driver’s actions were an intervening and superseding cause which broke any causal connection between the alleged negligence of failing to use warning signs and install barriers and the resulting car accident. [iii]

At the hearing on the motions, the trial court heard defendants’ limited the issue to proximate cause.[iv] The trial court granted the motion, finding that the driver’s reckless conduct was both an intervening and superseding cause of the crash and the sole, proximate cause of the accident as a matter of law. [v] The plaintiffs appealed.

 

The Proximate Cause of the Limousine Crash

Summary judgment must be precluded where material facts are disputed or where reasonable people may draw different inferences from undisputed facts. Generally, proximate causation is a question of fact to be determined by a trier of fact, but it may be determined as a matter of law only if the facts show that a plaintiff would never be entitled to recovery.[vi] The trial court based its granting of summary judgment on the latter, but the appellate court disagreed. When it comes to proximate cause, there are two distinct prongs: (1) cause in fact and (2) legal cause. The issue in this case was legal cause, which is rooted in foreseeability. Legal cause is established if an injury was foreseeable as to the type of harm a reasonable person would expect their conduct to produce.[vii]

Injury is not limited to just one proximate cause. Cases may involve concurrent negligence of multiple parties, as alleged in the present case. When concurrent negligence is at play, there may be cases involving injuries caused by intervening acts by third parties. It is essential to distinguish between the cause of an injury and a condition that merely made the injury possible.[viii] If the alleged negligence creates a condition by which the injury is made possible and that condition causes an injury by the subsequent, independent third-party act, the creation of the condition is not a proximate cause of the injury unless that intervening act was foreseeable.[ix] However, when varying inferences exist about the foreseeability of an intervening act, the issue is a question for the jury.[x]

In Johnson, the defendants argued that their decisions to forego installing lane shift signs and a barrier, coupled with the presence of an impact attenuator, merely created a condition that made the accident possible. They argued that Nash’s negligent driving was an unforeseeable, independent act that caused the accident. Additionally, the defendants claimed it would be speculative to say that the presence of lane shift signs would have caused or allowed Nash to navigate the lane shift appropriately.

The appellate court observed that, while mere speculation is not enough to create a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to survive a motion for summary judgment, all reasonable inferences in this case should have been drawn strictly against the defendants and liberally in favor of the plaintiffs.[xi]

Plaintiffs presented undisputed evidence that the construction contracts called for warning signs. Evidence also showed prior accidents in the area, and an engineering expert testified that advanced warning signage would have allowed Nash to safely anticipate and negotiate the lane shift.

The appellate court disagreed that the evidence was speculative and found genuine issues of material fact, including: (1) whether the absence of lane shift signs might cause Nash to miss the lane shift; and (2) whether it was foreseeable that limousine drivers from neighboring states might not possess a valid license. These are the issues that are to be decided by a jury.

Therefore, the appellate court, in an unpublished Rule 23 Order, determined the trial court improperly decided this matter on a motion for summary judgment and reversed and remanded the case for trial.

 

Takeaways

Summary judgments on proximate causation in catastrophic injury cases are rare in Cook County and the First District Appellate Court.xii However, this should not cause defense counsel to shy away from filing such motions. Instead, defense counsel should advise defendants to temper their expectations.

 

 

Keep Reading

More by this author

Sources


 

[i] Johnson v. Ill. State Toll Hwy. Auth., 2024 IL App (1st) 210941-U (unpublished opinion).

[ii] Id. at 12

[iii] Id. at 16

[iv] Id. at 17

[v] Id. at 20

[vi] Id. at 28

[vii] Hooper v. County of Cook, 366 Ill. App. 3d 1, 7 (2006) at 7.

[viii] Johnson v. Ill. State Toll Hwy. Auth., 2024 IL App (1st) 210941-U, at 30 (quoting Inman v. Howe Freightways, Inc., 2019 IL App (1st) 172459, at64)).

[ix] Id. at 31 (quoting Springfield Bank & Trust v. Galman, 188 Ill. 2d at 257 (citing Briske v. Village of Burnham, 379 Ill. 193, 199 (1942); Merlo v. Public Service Co., 381 Ill. 300, 316 (1942); and Thompson v. County of Cook, 154 Ill. 2d 374, 383 (1993)).

[x] Id. at 32 (quoting Mack v. Ford Motor Co., 283 Ill. App. 3d 52, 57 (1996)). “foreseeability is a question for the jury.”

[xi] Id. at 35 (quoting Weedon v. Pfizer, Inc., 332 Ill. App. 3d 17, 20 (2002)).

xii The trial judge in Johnson currently sits on the First District Appellate Court.