One Notice Of Appeal Gives Appellate Jurisdiction Over 32 Plaintiff Appeals in Truck-Train Collision Case

A proliferation of lawsuits was filed after a collision between a truck carrying a load of metal rebar and an Amtrak passenger train. A number of passengers were injured, and some died in the accident. Cases by 32 passengers or their representatives were filed in Illinois state court. Debra Dowe’s lawsuit was among them. Dowe sued a number of parties, including Birmingham Steel, the rebar manufacturer that allegedly loaded the truck that was in the accident. Dowe’s lawsuit was consolidated with the others for purposes of pretrial discovery and motions.

Birmingham asked for, and received, summary judgment against Dowe and the other 31 parties. Dowe then appealed the summary judgment given to Birmingham. Her Notice of Appeal was filed for her own case and the 31 other plaintiffs whose cases were consolidated.

But Birmingham argued that the 31 others had to file their own appeals. Birmingham claimed that each of the non-Dowe lawsuits retained their own identity despite the consolidation for pre-trial purposes. Because the 31 non-Dowe plaintiffs had not filed their own notices of appeal, Birmingham argued, the appellate court did not have jurisdiction to consider their appeals.

The First District Illinois Court of Appeals disagreed. The appellate court ruled that Dowe’s single Notice of Appeal was sufficient to confer appellate jurisdiction over all of the plaintiffs because the appeal was from a single summary judgment that applied to all plaintiffs. The appellate court’s discussion of consolidation for purposes of appeal is instructive:

Actions pending in the same court may be consolidated “as an aid to convenience, whenever it can be done without prejudice to a substantial right.” … Our courts have recognized three different forms of consolidation: (1) where several cases are pending involving substantially the same subject matter, the court may stay the proceedings in all but one and then see whether the disposition of the one case may settle the others, thereby avoiding multiple trials on the same issues; (2) where several cases involve an inquiry into the same event in its general aspects, the cases may be tried together, but with separate docket entries, verdicts and judgments, the consolidation being limited to a joint trial; and (3) where several actions are pending that might have been brought as a single action, the cases may be merged into one action, thereby losing their individual identities, and be disposed of in one suit.

Our review of the record indicates that even though the original stated purposes for the consolidation w[ere] to conduct discovery and motion practice as it related to liability, the consolidation was much broader and actually comes within the third category. To determine whether a particular consolidation was for disposition, the test is whether the cases might have been the subject of a single proceeding or could have been brought as one action.

Here, the circuit court consolidated the 32 separate bodily injury lawsuits for disposition by summary judgment. The circuit court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Birmingham Steel and against … the [32] Dowe plaintiffs applied to all of the consolidated cases and it gave rise to only one judgment to be appealed from.

If we accepted Birmingham Steel’s position, this would go against the stated purpose of consolidation, which is to expedite the resolution of lawsuits, conserve time, and avoid duplicating efforts and unnecessary expenses … We find that the notice of appeal filed by Debra Dowe on behalf of the Dowe plaintiffs was sufficient to confer appellate jurisdiction over the 31 other Dowe plaintiffs.

Although Birmingham lost the appellate jurisdiction dispute, the appellate court affirmed the summary judgment. The whole opinion, Dowe v. Birmingham Steel, 2011 IL App (1st) 091997, is available by clicking here.

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