Illinois Supreme Court Denies New Trial in Lawsuit Over Trucking Accident That Killed Three – Powell v. Dean Foods

By January 26, 2012 Trucking Accidents

An important part of my job as a southern Illinois semi truck accident lawyer is to protect my clients from overreaching and malfeasance by trucking companies with a great deal more money and resources than the clients have. In egregious cases, this can lead to company representatives pressuring accident victims or their families to sign a waiver they don’t understand or take money that forecloses their right to sue right after a crash. But later, if the case goes to trial or pretrial proceedings, the power imbalance s often visible in full force, as lawyers for trucking companies and their insurers use the court system to their full advantage. Powell et al. v. Dean Foods Co. et al put an interesting twist on the practice when the same trucking company moved for a substitution of a judge twice under different names. The Illinois Supreme Court ultimately decided no new trial was necessary, preserving a verdict for the plaintiffs.
Adam McDonald, Diana Kakidas and Christina Chakonis were killed in 2002 when their car was hit by a tractor-trailer driven by Jamie Reeves. Reeves was employed as a trucker by Alco of Wisconsin, Inc. The three families filed lawsuits, which were eventually consolidated, against companies including Alco of Wisconsin and Alco, Inc. They alleged that Reeves was speeding, had gone over his hours of service and didn’t brake until four seconds after the crash; the corporate defendants were held vicariously liable for Reeves’s actions as an employee. On the day trial was to start, four defendants including Alco of Wisconsin and Alco, Inc. moved for and received a change of judge. Defendants objected, pointing out that Alco, Inc. was nothing more than the former name of Alco of Wisconsin and thus they were the same entity and not entitled to two changes. Alder Group, Inc. then requested a new judge, but the judge ultimately denied it because she had already ruled on a substantive issue. The case went to trial and more than $20 million was ultimately awarded to the three families.
Alder Group appealed, arguing that it should have been permitted to request a new judge, and thus all further orders in the case were void. The Illinois appeals court agreed, finding that the trial judge’s ruling on the motion to reconsider the previous substitution of judge was not a substantial issue under Illinois law. It also held that all parties had standing to challenge the ruling because all orders after that ruling were void, and remanded the case for new trial under another judge. Plaintiffs appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.
That court reversed again, but on the grounds that no plaintiff but Alder Group had standing to appeal. The judgment against Alder Group had been vacated, and plaintiffs moved successfully to dismiss the company as a defendant, with prejudice. Once that company was dismissed, the Illinois high court said, no defendant left had standing to appeal. In so ruling, it sided with an earlier appeals court ruling finding that each litigant is a separate party; each has standing to challenge decisions on only its own motions. It found arguments that the other defendants were prejudiced by the outcome unpersuasive, noting that this would mean any defendant in any case has standing to seek a reversal of any error against any party. Because Alder Group is now dismissed, the court said, there’s no need for a new trial. Thus, it let the ruling stand.
As a Missouri tractor-trailer accident attorney, I’d like to note that part of the confusion in this case stems from Alco’s attempt to get two substitutions of judge. This was rightly not permitted, but the attempt shows how the deck can be stacked against plaintiffs in cases pitting them against much richer and more powerful corporations. After all, the average person cannot legally appear twice in court under the same name, thus getting twice as many chances to influence the case. Nor would the average person be able to pay for two attorneys. In general, when our St. Louis big rig accident lawyers handle these cases, we prefer to step in as early as possible to prevent any attempts at exploitation by the trucking company or its attorneys. Injured people aren’t necessarily experienced in the law, and just after a catastrophic accident, they may be in no position to realize their rights are threatened.


If your family has suffered a loss or a devastating injury caused by someone else’s negligence behind the wheel of a large truck, don’t wait to call Carey, Danis & Lowe for help. You can reach us toll-free at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message online.
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