Dan Churney Aug. 20, 2015, 12:56pm

An appeals panel has upheld an $8 million judgment awarded to the family of a suburban woman killed by a truck along the side of Interstate 94 in 2010, rejecting a trucking company's claims it didn't get a fair trial and the trial judge made a number of mistakes.

The First District Appellate Court in Chicago on Aug. 14 affirmed the jury verdict awarded to the family of Stacey L. McHale, a Homewood resident who was struck and killed by a truck driven by Russell A. Kleppe on the night of Feb. 15, 2010, along Interstate 94 near Midlothian, as she stood outside her car, which had a flat tire.

Kleppe was driving a truck owned by W.D. Trucking, assigned to Kiswani Trucking, which was a subcontractor of Transfreight, a logistics provider for Toyota Motor Manufacturing.

McHale’s widower, Steven McHale, as administrator of her estate, lodged a wrongful death suit against Kleppe, Kiswani and Transfreight.

Kleppe and Kiswani admitted negligence and went to trial, along with Transfreight, solely on the question of damages. On March 22, 2013, a jury awarded $8 million to the estate. Kleppe and Kiswani appealed, claiming Cook County Judge William Haddad erred when in three instances he permitted evidence of Steven McHale’s poverty and Kiswani’s financial status to be introduced, in alleged violation of a motion granted at the trial’s outset barring such evidence.

The Appellate Court held the instances did not rise to the level of reversible error and, in one of the instances, a jury instruction “cured” any prejudice that may have resulted.

The Appellate Court ruled Judge Haddad did not err in refusing to grant a new trial.

Then Transfreight took its turn, saying Haddad wrongly denied its motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and its motion for a new trial, arguing on both counts the jury’s verdict was “contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence.” Transfreight claimed it had no liability for Stacey’s death, because Kleppe and Kiswani were not their agents.

Appellate justices ruled the “evidence does not so overwhelmingly favor Transfreight that no contrary verdict could ever stand.” The Appellate panel noted the jury heard conflicting testimony as to whether Kleppe and Kiswani were agents of Transfreight and the jury weighed the credibility of witnesses and resolved the conflicts.

“We cannot substitute our judgment for that of the jury,” the Appellate Court concluded.

Transfreight also sought a new trial on grounds Haddad improperly allowed evidence to be introduced in three instances during the trial. The Appellate Court disagreed, saying the jury was entitled to hear the evidence. Transfreight further contended Haddad allowed McHale to file a third amended complaint on the eve of trial. However, Appellate justices wrote this off by saying no “surprise” was sprung on Transfreight, as the factual allegations underlying the amended complaint were the same as before and Transfreight took no action at the time to ameliorate any potential surprise.

Transfreight further argued Haddad had erred in allowing use of a verdict form with separate lines giving the jury the opportunity to apportion damages for Stacey's widower and each of their children. Transfreight argued the judge is to apportion damages, not the jury, and this form circumvented the “sticker shock” a jury might face when laying out an overall award amount.

The Appellate panel agreed the jury should not have been given this form, but nonetheless, this misstep by Haddad did not warrant a new trial, because any effect it had on the jury is “pure speculation.” Going further, the Appellate panel pointed out plaintiffs asked for $15 million, but the jury gave $8 million, so Transfreight cannot conclude the verdict form inflated the award.

Transfreight claimed that overall, accumulated errors deprived it of a fair trial, but the Appellate Court found only one error, which it said did no harm to Transfreight.

With all of Transfreight’s motions denied, the Appellate Court lastly addressed a matter between Kiswani and Transfreight.

Transfreight had filed a third-party court action seeking full indemnification from Kiswani, which Judge Haddad granted. Kiswani appealed, maintaining Transfreight originally required Kiswani, per contract, to keep $5 million in both general and auto insurance coverage, but in 2006 lowered the amount to $1 million. In court, both parties agreed this reduction took place. However, Appellate justices ruled this reduction did not limit the potential liability of Kiswani, and Kiswani had agreed to hold Transfreight harmless without limitation, maintaining Transfreight as an insured on policies.

Appellate justices denied Kiswani’s motion.

Justice Stuart E. Palmer delivered the appellate decision, with justices Margaret Stanton McBride and Robert E. Gordon concurring.

McHale was represented by Corboy & Demetrio. Hinshaw & Culbertson defended Kleppe, with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith defending Kiswani and W.D. Trucking. Transfreight had the services of Grant Ross & Fanning. All the firms are of Chicago.

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