Panel overturns $1M verdict in favor of defendants in wrongful death suit

By Rhys Saunders | Oct 30, 2013


The First District Appellate Court has overturned a $1 million verdict in favor of two Chicago real estate companies that own and manage an apartment where a woman was raped and murdered in 2005.

In an unpublished order filed Oct. 28, the appeals panel found that Wilmette Real Estate and Management Company (WRE) and BCHTOWER LLC had no duty to protect Melissa Dorner from Roberto Ramirez, who is serving a 50-year prison sentence for her murder.

Justice Mathias Delort delivered the court’s ruling. Justices Thomas Hoffman and Joy Cunningham concurred.

According to the order, Ramirez raped and killed Dorner on Jan. 25, 2005 inside her Winthrop Tower apartment.

Dorner’s mother, Mary Pat Dorner, sued Ramirez for wrongful death, survival and damages under the Rights of Married Persons Act. She also named WRE and BCHTOWER LLC -- the managing agent and owner, respectively, of Winthrop Tower -- as defendants in the suit.

A jury returned a $10 million verdict on March 27, 2012 in favor of Dorner and against Ramirez and the two companies. The jury apportioned 10 percent of the fault – or $1 million – to the WRE defendants.

After the jury verdict was read, the order states, the WRE defendants orally moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, while asking for leave to brief their motion in writing.

The circuit court heard the oral motion and denied it. The WRE defendants then filed a written post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and the circuit court denied that as well.

Dorner argued that WRE’s appeal should be dismissed, and that the appeals court should only be able to review the oral post-trial motion.

“Plaintiff claims prejudice from two post-trial motions attacking the verdict because the WRE defendants 'were able to test the waters on their arguments and see which, if any, might be persuasive to the circuit court,’ and refine their arguments accordingly,” the order states.

The review panel cited a 2012 case, Stackhouse v. Royce Realty & Management Corp., in which it was found that a post-trial motion must be in writing to be effective.

The panel also determined that the motion met the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure, which states that motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict must be sought in a single post-trial motion.

“As the written post-trial motion was filed within 30 days of the March 27, 2012, judgment, we conclude the WRE defendants’ written post-trial motion was both timely and effective for purposes of preserving the issues raised in the motion for appeal,” the order states.

In addition, the panel found that Illinois courts have “repeatedly held that the simple relationship between a landlord and a tenant is not a ‘special’ one imposing a duty to protect against the criminal acts of others.”

The panel struck down Dorner’s assertion that WRE negligently performed their rental application procedures, enforced their occupancy rules and responded to a tenant complaint that should have made them aware of Ramirez’s criminal behavior.

“Even viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the evidence shows that the WRE defendants only implemented their rental application policies to screen potential tenants for creditworthiness,” the order states. “Accordingly, the evidence did not establish the WRE defendants voluntarily undertook the provide security measures for tenants against the criminal acts of third persons.”

The panel also determined that there was no evidence of a causal connection between Ramirez providing WRE with a false social security number and Dorner’s murder.

In addition, the panel found no merit to the claim that the apartment managers did not follow up after a prior attack happened there, noting that the woman who Ramirez chased prior to Dorner’s murder did not identify him until after Dorner’s death.

Circuit Court Judge Daniel Lynch presided over the initial case.

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