Illinois, like Missouri and many other states, permits injured people to recover from a bar or restaurant that triggered a car crash by over-serving someone. But the Illinois Dramshop Act includes a cap on damages, so no matter how serious the injury was or how much the jury awards, the injured family can never recover more than that amount. And it may be substantially less, as the Rogers family found out in Rogers v. Imeri. Roy and Theresa Rogers lost their 18-year-old son to a drunk driver they claim was over-served by Johnny’s Bar and Grill in Effingham County. They filed an Illinois personal injury lawsuit against Johnny’s and its owner, Gani Imeri, under the Dramshop Act. The Illinois Supreme Court ultimately ruled that they could recover no more than the Dramshop Act’s damages cap minus the payments already received, regardless of the jury award.
John Winterrowd, 60, was intoxicated when he ran his vehicle head-on into a vehicle driven by Roy Dean Rogers III, 18 and not intoxicated. After receiving $26,550 from Winterrowd’s insurer and $80,000 from their own, the Rogerses filed an auto accident lawsuit against the bar and its owner, Imeri. At the time, Imeri had insurance for up to the damages cap in the Dramshop Act, which is $130,338.51. While the case was pending, the insurer was declared insolvent and the Illinois Insurance Guaranty Fund assumed Imeri’s defense. Imeri asked the court to rule that his maximum liability was the amount of the damages cap minus what the Rogers family had already recovered—which would give them no more than $23,788.51. The trial court denied the motion as premature, saying Imeri could move for such a ruling after the jury decided. The parties then agreed to certify a question to the Court of Appeals: would someone in their situation have the setoff applied against the damages cap or the jury’s verdict?
The appeals court held that it should be applied against the entire verdict, applying logic from a case not involving the Guaranty Fund. Imeri appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. The high court started by interpreting the parts of the Insurance Code that establish the Guaranty Fund. The Fund is a substitute for the defunct insurer, subject to certain limitations. One of these is that potential claims on the fund must be reduced by the amounts already paid by solvent insurers liable for the same injury. Thus, the high court found, the Rogerses were required to exhaust coverage provided by other policies, and the Fund’s liability was reduced by that amount. Thus, Imeri’s maximum liability should be $23,788.51, regardless of the jury verdict. The Rogerses argued that the Dramshop Act requires that the jury determine the amount to be recovered, but the high court said that wasn’t relevant. Thus, it reversed the appeals court and remanded to trial court.
This is a disappointing ruling for Illinois families—and a good example of the way damage caps create injustice. The damages from losing a son or daughter are often very high. The family is compensated for the loss of the child’s society as well as the injury itself; if the child was helping support the family, the jury may add economic losses. The jury in this personal injury lawsuit could have brought back a verdict many times higher than the $130,388.51 cap in the Dramshop Act. But because of the cap, these parents will not be able to seek more than $23,788.51 in court. In fact, because that amount is relatively low and the percentage paid to an attorney would also be low, they may even have trouble finding an attorney to continue the case. That’s a bad outcome for Illinois public policy, even if it does benefit insurance companies.
If you or someone you love suffered a serious injury because of someone else’s bad decisions behind the wheel, you should call Carey, Danis & Lowe. Our experienced personal injury attorneys can tell you about your rights and your legal options at a free consultation. You can reach us through our website or call toll-free at 1-877-678-3400.
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