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Seth Gausnell, Josh Breithaupt, and Jim Ribaudo Obtain Reversal of St. Clair County Circuit Court’s Denial of JNOV from the Illinois Fifth District Court of Appeals

On November 13, 2018, current Gausnell, O’Keefe & Thomas, LLC principals Seth Gausnell and Josh Breithaupt tried a personal injury premises liability claim to jury verdict in St. Clair County, Illinois. The case arose from an odd set of circumstances to say the least.

The Plaintiff was an individual named James McDaniel who attended a party at Defendant Kevin McCormick’s home on October 10, 2010. The home where the party occurred was in fact owned by Defendant Kevin McCormick’s mother, namely Lillian McCormick (who was also a Defendant in the case).

The evidence adduced at trial indicated that Defendant Kevin McCormick routinely had Saturday gatherings of friends at the home where he resided to play competitive horseshoes and drink alcohol. At one of these gatherings, a fight erupted between a male party attendee named Kevin Smith and a female party attendee named Michelle Meyers. According to witnesses, the argument arose over the ownership rights to a particular pair of horseshoes and quickly escalated to a physical altercation between the two.

An individual named Chad Crank, who happened to be the boyfriend of Michelle Meyers witnessed the fight and picked up a metal fire poker to intervene. According to witnesses, Mr. Crank then began striking Kevin Smith with the metal fire poker while he was wrestling with Michelle Myers. Plaintiff James McDaniel alleged that, while he was attempting to break up the fight, he was struck multiple times with the fire poker thereby sustaining various personal injuries.

Plaintiff James McDaniel sued Defendant Kevin McCormick (the possessor of the property) and Defendant Lillian McCormick (the owner of the property) on a premises liability theory for the personal injuries he allegedly sustained while breaking up the fight at the party. Throughout the course of the litigation defense counsel Seth Gausnell, Josh Breithaupt, and Jim Ribaudo argued that neither Defendant Kevin McCormick nor Defendant Lillian McCormick owed Plaintiff James McDaniel any legal duty to protect him from the criminal acts of a third party on the property absent some special circumstances or relationship between the parties. Illinois law is clear that there are only certain specific exceptions allowed for the general rule that possessors and landowners are not legally responsible for the criminal acts of third parties.

Defense counsel prepared and filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on this issue which was denied by the Circuit Court. Then, during the course of trial, defense counsel filed a Motion for Directed Verdict at the close of Plaintiff’s evidence, and another Motion for Directed Verdict at the end of all evidence on this issue, both of which were denied by the Trial Court. After deliberation by the Jury, a defense verdict was entered in favor of Defendant Lillian McCormick, and a minor Judgment of $8,550.00 was entered in favor of Plaintiff James McDaniel against Defendant Kevin McCormick.

After the verdict, Plaintiff James McDaniel and Defendant Kevin McCormick filed Motions for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict, both of which were denied by the Court. Defendant’s Motion again focused on the fact that, as a matter of law, Defendant Kevin McCormick did not owe any duty to Plaintiff and therefore could not be liable for Plaintiff’s alleged injuries. Both parties appealed the denial of their Motions for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict and the Illinois Court of Appeals for the Fifth District recently issued its decision on August 27, 2020.

The Appellate Court held that the Circuit Court errored in denying Defendant Kevin McCormick’s post-trial Motion. The Court of Appeals found that that the Defendant did not have a duty to protect the Plaintiff from the harmful conduct of a third party or to control the criminal conduct of the third party, and therefore, the Court of Appeals reversed the Plaintiff’s verdict against Defendant Kevin McCormick and vacated the Trial Court’s Judgment in favor of Plaintiff.

In reaching this decision the Fifth District Appellate Court upheld the general rule that one does not have a duty to protect another from the harmful or criminal conduct of a third party or to control the conduct of a third party. Hills v. Bridgeview Little League Ass’n, 194 Ill.2d 210, 228 (2000) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 314) (remaining citations omitted). Additionally, Illinois law recognizes that an affirmative duty to aid or protect another arises only within the context of a legally recognized special relationship, and absent any special relationship between the Defendant and the injured party or the Defendant and the wrongdoer, there can be no affirmative duty imposed on another to warn or protect against the criminal conduct of a third party. Id. Illinois law has long been clear that there are only four special relationships existing which are: (1) common carrier and passenger; (2) innkeeper and guest; (3) custodian and ward; and (4) business invitor and invitee. Id. at 243–44.

In analyzing the evidence presented at trial, the Illinois Court of Appeals for the Fifth District determined that none of the four special relationships existed and Defendant Kevin McCormick simply had no affirmative duty to protect Plaintiff James McDaniel from Chad Crank’s criminal conduct or otherwise control Chad Crank’s conduct. As a result, it concluded that the Trial Court errored in denying Defendant Kevin McCormick’s Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict, and Ordered that the Judgment against Defendant Kevin McCormick be reversed and vacated.

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