A construction company could face the prospect of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, to the family of a boy severely injured in a 2006 traffic crash after an appellate court upheld a lower court decision allowing the woman blamed for the crash to pay just $20,000.
In an opinion filed Sept. 30, a split panel of the First District Appellate Court affirmed the decision of Cook County Circuit Judge William E. Gomolinski, who had determined that a settlement between the family of the injured boy and the woman, Kesha Geans, had been reached in good faith.
The 2-1 appellate court ruling means that Walsh Construction Co. could not compel a future jury to apportion a share of the blame for the crash to her should the family of the injured boy continue with their negligence complaint against the construction company.
Justice Thomas E. Hoffman authored the majority opinion, saying it was not the court’s job to retry the case, but merely to determine if the trial judge had abused his discretion in reaching his ruling.
Justice Joy V. Cunningham concurred with Hoffman’s opinion that Gomolinski had ruled within the bounds of reason and law in dismissing Walsh’s suit against Geans to compel the court to consider how much blame she should incur should the case go before a jury.
Justice Mathias W. Delort, however, dissented, noting that the small amount Geans had paid as a result of a settlement through her insurance company was far too little considering her actions led to the crash that injured the boy.
The case arose from a crash that occurred on Sept. 24, 2006, when Geans, who was driving with a blood alcohol content of almost three times the legal limit, lost control of her vehicle and hit a concrete construction barrier at the intersection of Ogden Avenue and Taylor Street in Chicago.
Her vehicle then overturned, slid across the road’s center line and struck a vehicle containing the Miranda family. Several of the family members were injured in the crash, including then 12-year-old Marco Antonio Miranda, who suffered serious brain injuries that left him permanently disabled.
Geans later pleaded guilty to felony aggravated driving under the influence.
In December 2008, Geans’ auto insurer, Universal Casualty Co., issued a payment of $20,000, the maximum amount payable under Geans’ policy, to the Mirandas in exchange for a release of further liability.
The Mirandas then in November 2010 filed suit against Walsh Construction, alleging the company had negligently “created a dangerous condition” when it placed the concrete barrier on Ogden Avenue while it worked on a nearby hospital.
In February 2011, Walsh sued Geans, seeking to draw her back into the action.
The construction company argued that Geans was the sole proximate cause of the Miranda family’s injuries and that the $20,000 paid would not come anywhere close to the amount a jury might award to the Mirandas to compensate them for their injuries.
Geans then sought to have the suit dismissed, saying she and her insurer had settled in good faith with the Mirandas.
In her motion to dismiss, Geans noted that she was “impoverished,” and had no assets to claim beyond her insurance policy.
The trial judge agreed, saying he did not believe that “the disparity between the settlement amount and the damages sought in the complaint” could be used as evidence of bad faith in the settlement between Geans and the Mirandas.
Walsh appealed in August 2012.
The two affirming justices, Hoffman and Cunningham, backed the trial judge’s reasoning, saying he did not abuse his discretion under the law in finding that “Geans’ $20,000 settlement was the best amount available under poor circumstances.”
Delort, however, wrote in his dissent that he believed Walsh had made its case that the trial judge had gone too far.
He said Geans should share a portion of the blame, even if she ultimately could not pay more than $20,000. To that end, Delort said the $20,000 settlement falls far short of what her share of any damages that could be awarded might ultimately be.
He, for instance, estimated Walsh could be ordered by a jury to pay as much as $1 million.
“Geans’ $20,000 settlement is so microscopic in comparison to her just share of the million-dollar liability that it cannot possibly meet the good faith test,” Delort wrote.