Illinois Supreme Court Rules De Novo Standard Of Review Applies To Permissive Review Of Conflict Of Law Question

Michelle Townsend brought a product liability case Sears Roebuck on behalf of her minor son Jacob. Jacob was badly injured when he was run over by a lawn tractor operated in his yard. Sears allegedly designed and manufactured the tractor.

The accident happened in Michigan, where Michelle and Jacob resided. But Sears was domiciled in Illinois and made certain design and marketing decisions in Illinois. The parties fought over whether Illinois or Michigan law applied.

The trial court ruled that Illinois law applied. Pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 308, the trial court certified the question of the proper choice of law for immediate interlocutory appeal. The appellate court accepted the appeal, and affirmed the decision to apply Illinois law.

Sears appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which reversed and ruled that Michigan law should be applied to liability and damages issues.

The parties disputed the proper standard of review. Sears argued for de novo review, the usual standard for certified questions of law. But Michelle claimed that the choice of law issue presented questions of law and fact. She asserted therefore that a more deferential standard of review — manifest weight of the evidence — should be applied to a choice of law determination.

The Illinois Supreme Court agreed with Sears, and applied the de novo standard of review. “The circuit court did not hold an evidentiary hearing, weigh the testimony or assess the credibility of witnesses; the record consists solely of documents. Where the circuit court does not hear testimony and bases its decision on documentary evidence, the rationale underlying a deferential standard of review is inapplicable and review is de novo … In any event, while the methodology of the Second Restatement of Conflict of Laws may raise factual issues, the task of evaluating and balancing the choice-of-law principles embodied in the Second Restatement, as they apply to the facts, is a matter of law rather than fact and one that is more properly left to the judge … Because these issues ‘involve the selection, interpretation, and application of legal precepts,’ review is de novo…”

Read the whole case, Townsend v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., No. 103858 (11/29/07), by clicking here.