Jonathan Bilyk Jan. 20, 2015, 10:37am

An Oak Lawn man injured in a chain-reaction crash on Interstate 65 in Indiana will need to use Indiana law to pursue his claims, something an Illinois appeals panel acknowledged could potentially lead to a smaller damages award thanks to differences in how the two states apportion fault in multi-party traffic crashes.

In its Jan. 14 ruling, the First District Appellate Court found that while Robert Denton filed his suit in Cook County Circuit Court, and several of the parties involved in the case are from Illinois, too many other elements in the matter favor using Indiana law to decide who should pay damages and how much they should pay.

“We cannot say that Illinois’ relationship to this case is so pivotal as to overcome the presumption that Indiana law should apply,” the panel held.

Justice Terrence J. Lavin wrote the appellate opinion, in which Justices Michael B. Hyman and Mary Anne Mason concurred. The ruling reversed Cook County Circuit Judge William E. Gomolinski.

The case stems from a sequence of traffic crashes involving seven vehicles on Feb. 9, 2011, on southbound I-65 in Jasper County, Ind., about 10 miles northwest of Rensselaer.

The crashes were instigated when a vehicle driven by 88-year-old George Kallis entered southbound I-65 heading northbound. Most of the vehicles involved in the crashes were damaged as they swerved to avoid Kallis.

But, when two semi trailers pulled to each side of the highway to avoid Kallis, the vehicle driven by Denton drove between the semis, striking the side of one of the rigs and sliding sideways into the middle of I-65, where his vehicle was rear-ended by another semi.

Denton was the only person injured in the crash. Kallis has since died, but Denton was able to settle with his estate for $100,000, according to the panel's opinion.

He later sued the driver of the truck that rear-ended his vehicle, David Lee Johnson of South Carolina, and Universal Am-Can and Universal Truckload Services Inc. of Michigan, the trucking companies that hired him to haul goods from Illinois to South Carolina.

Denton argued Johnson was negligent for not taking more action to avoid the crash and Johnson’s employer was negligent in hiring Johnson, whose driving record, the opinion notes, was “checkered.”

In response, the defendants asked the court to dismiss the suit, or failing that, to litigate the case under Indiana law, which could potentially expose them to less liability from the crash than they might face under Illinois law.

Gomolinski, the trial judge, sided with Denton in deciding that Illinois law should apply, a ruling that spurred Johnson and the trucking companies to file an interlocutory appeal.

Denton asked the appeals panel to uphold the lower court decision, saying that the application of Indiana law would not “affect the outcome in this case.”

The First District, however, disagreed, stressing that the laws of the two states could lead to markedly different outcomes.

For instance, under Illinois law, even if Johnson was assigned just 25 percent of the blame in the case, he and the trucking companies could still be subject to paying full damages. In Indiana, however, the panel said they would pay based only on the amount of blame apportioned to them by the court.

Further, under Indiana law, the trucking companies could defend themselves by pinning full blame on Kallis, a position not afforded to them under Illinois law, the justices explained.

“The very fact that the states have different ways of allocating fault – with Illinois placing the burden on defendants and Indiana placing the burden on plaintiffs – arguably leads to a different outcome in this multivehicle car accident case,” Lavin wrote for the panel.

The justices further determined the facts of the case, including the location of the crash in Indiana and the business-related nature of the parties’ travel through Indiana, among others, favor applying Indiana law in the case.

The case was remanded to Cook County court for further proceedings.

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