January 6, 2014

Railroad’s Time To Appeal Not Tolled By Post-Trial Request For Setoff

Railroad employee Anthony Williams was injured at work. He sued BNSF Railway, his employer, and got a judgment for $2.6 million.

Claiming there were more than 40 errors at the trial, BNSF asked the trial court to decrease or throw out the verdict. The company also asked for a setoff “in the amount of taxes payable as a result of lost wages awarded to Williams.”

The trial court denied BNSF’s request to throw out the verdict, but reserved a ruling on the “tax issue.” A written order order was not issued; nor did the court request one; nor apparently did the parties offer to submit one.

About six weeks later BNSF made an emergency request to the trial court to file additional authority to support the earlier request to decrease [for the amount BNSF paid for Williams’s disability] or to throw out the verdict.

When the parties returned to court about four weeks after that, the trial court denied BNSF’s requests to change or dismiss the verdict, or for a setoff for the taxes payable.

BNSF appealed the denial trial court rulings – the one denying the 40-plus claims of error and the one denying the decrease or setoff. Its Notice of Appeal was filed within 30 days of the trial court’s last order, but more than 70 days after the oral ruling that denied BNSF’s 40-plus-errors request. Williams asked the appellate court to dismiss the entire appeal. Williams argued the appellate court did not have jurisdiction because BNSF appealed too late.

The First District Illinois Appellate Court agreed with Williams. The appeal from the 40-plus-errors order had to be filed within 30 days from the oral ruling. And because BNSF’s request for a setoff did not attack the judgment —“a request for a setoff seeks to satisfy, not modify, the judgment” — it did not toll the time to appeal.

Nor did BNSF’s emergency request make a difference. The trial court lost jurisdiction over the verdict-decrease issue 30 days after the initial oral ruling, and could not give itself jurisdiction again by reiterating its earlier order.

The appellate court also ruled that the lack of a written order following the trial court’s first ruling did not help BNSF. “Given that the trial court never required the submission of a written order regarding the denial of BNSF's posttrial motion, the oral ruling on that motion was therefore final on April 18, 2012,
the date it was entered into the record.”

In the end, the appellate court dismissed the entire appeal. Read the whole opinion, Williams v. BNSF Railway Co., 2013 IL App (1st) 121901 (9/25/13), by clicking here.

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August 17, 2010

$2 Million Punitive Damages Award In Defamation Case Reduced To $81,600 On Appeal

Jerry Slovinski sued James Elliot, the CEO of Slovinski’s former employer, for defamation. Slovinski claimed that disparaging and untrue remarks were made about him by Elliot to one of the company’s suppliers.

A jury awarded Slovinski $81,600 for compensatory damages, and $2 million for punitive damages. The trial court thought the punitive damages verdict was too high, so it remitted it to $1 million. Slovinski appealed the remittitur, but the appellate court lowered the punitive damages verdict even more, to $81,600.

Slovinski appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. He argued that the original $2 million verdict should stand because neither the trial court nor the appellate court stated specific reasons for lowering the verdict.

But the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed, and affirmed the lowered punitive damages verdict of $81,600. The supreme court ruled that neither the trial court nor the appellate court were required to give specific reasons for lowering the verdict. All that mattered was that the trial court record supported the remittitur. Here’s what the supreme court said: “For purposes of our review, it is irrelevant whether the appellate court articulated with sufficient clarity the reasons it had for reaching its decision. The issue for this court is simply whether the appellate court erred in holding that the circuit court should have reduced the jury's award further.”

In the end, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the trial court abused its discretion by lowering the punitive damages verdict to $1 million because there was “no material evidence to support it.” Read the whole opinion, Slovinski v. Elliot, No. 107146 (4/15/10), by clicking here.

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January 25, 2007

First District Illinois Appellate Orders Remittitur Of $25mm Loss Of Society Verdict.

In a wrongful death case, plaintiff was awarded $2 million for loss of support and $25 million for loss of society. While the evidence showed a close family relationship, the verdict still shocked the judicial conscience and was ruled to be excessive.

The appellate court decided that remittitur was preferable to a new trial on damages because there were no trial errors and loss of consortium was warranted by the evidence. Rather than reach the new damage figure, the appellate court remanded to the trial court to revise the loss of consortium award. The appellate court gave minimal guidance to the trial court, stating, “[W]e would find it difficult to deem reasonable a loss of society award of more than seven figures in this case and would certainly find unreasonable an award of any more than one-half of the loss of society award settled upon by the jury.”

This opinion contains interesting discussion about the consumer expectations and risk utility tests, and the propriety of various jury instructions. Get the whole opinion, Mikolajczyk v. Ford Motor Co., No. 1-05-3133 (11/22/06), by clicking here.

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