A divided state appeals court has upheld a $26 million jury verdict awarded to a Chicago lawyer injured in a 2005 taxicab crash near Hinsdale, saying the Yellow Cab taxi affiliation must pay out for the accident because the injured passenger believed Yellow Cab was the driver’s “apparent agent,” even though Yellow Cab did not employ the driver and a Cook County trial judge refused to let YCA show the jury key evidence on how extensively all cabs are controlled by Chicago City Hall.
On March 16, a three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court ruled 2-1 to let stand the verdict in favor of plaintiff Marc Jacobs, as the majority said they did not believe YCA had demonstrated Cook County Judge Daniel J. Lynch had abused his discretion in limiting what YCA could tell the jury about the impact of city regulation on the appearance of its cabs, and the misunderstanding this can create in the minds of passengers and the public as to who the otherwise independent cab drivers actually work for.
Justice Margaret McBride authored the majority opinion, with concurrence from Justice David Ellis.
Justice Cynthia Cobbs dissented, saying the majority’s decision to uphold Judge Lynch’s ruling essentially prevented YCA from defending itself, making the result of the trial all but a foregone conclusion.
“The court’s ruling did more than tip the scales in favor of plaintiffs,” Cobbs wrote in her dissent. “It made any conclusion other than that YCA created the appearance of agency impossible.”
The case centered on an Aug. 31, 2005, single-vehicle crash off the Interstate 294 exit ramp leading to Hinsdale, involving a Yellow-branded taxi driven by Cornelius C. Ezeagu.
Jacobs had entered the cab at a taxi stand in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, across from a restaurant at E. Grand Ave. and N. Rush Street where Jacobs had been dining with a “longtime client.” After his client left in her private car, Jacobs asked Ezeagu to take him home to Hinsdale.
On the exit ramp from I-294, however, Ezeagu’s minivan left the curved ramp, “went airborne for 32 feet, struck the ground and continued forward over a grassy drainage area, and then crashed into a concrete retention wall,” according to court documents.
Jacobs and Ezeagu had disagreed over the circumstances leading to the crash, including how fast the cab was traveling at the time it left the roadway, and whether Jacobs had yelled at Ezeagu shortly before he exited the interstate highway, allegedly causing the driver to leave the highway more sharply than he otherwise would have and causing him to lose control of the car. Cell phone records do not support Ezeagu’s contention Jacobs had been on his phone at the time of the crash, court documents said.
A Cook County jury had found in favor of Jacobs, awarding him and his wife a combined $26 million in damages.
However, on appeal, YCA did not dispute the facts of the crash, but rather, whether the court had wrongly prevented them from presenting evidence to help the jury better understand its relationship to Ezeagu.
Since the mid-1990s, when the city of Chicago changed the way it regulated cab companies, the regulations had the effect of prompting large taxi operators, like Yellow Cab, to sell off its medallions to smaller, independent operators. Those independent operators then were required by the same regulations to affiliate with branded taxi cab affiliations, like Yellow Cab, and emblazon their vehicles with the color scheme and brands of those affiliations.
The affiliations do not collect a cut of the affiliated drivers’ fares, directly. Rather, the independent medallion holders then pay $200 a week to the taxi affiliation groups for dispatch and regulatory assistance services, among other services.
Cab drivers are free to change affiliations, as they desire.
YCA also asserted it is barred by City Hall from printing anywhere on the independent drivers’ vehicles that the cabs are operated by independent drivers.
During proceedings, Jacobs had argued YCA should be held liable for the crash because he had specifically chosen a Yellow Cab-branded taxi out of brand loyalty, and had entered Ezeagu’s vehicle because he believed the Yellow Cab branding meant Yellow Cab held a measure of control over Ezeagu.
However, when YCA attempted to submit evidence of the city of Chicago’s “bumper to bumper” control of taxis’ appearance and branding, Judge Lynch sided with plaintiffs in forbidding them from doing so.
On appeal, the majority justices found Lynch to be on sound footing in his decision, saying the issue of City Hall’s control was largely irrelevant to the jury’s determination that YCA should be held liable for Ezeagu’s actions under the legal theory of “apparent agency.” They said the city regulations did not force YCA to continue to use Yellow Cab’s branding – a decision from which the company profited, by leading passengers like Jacobs to believe the Yellow Cab logo on a vehicle continued to mean what Jacobs and others like him believed it once did.
The majority noted the city’s ordinance, while exercising large control over the cabs’ appearance, “did not require YCA to choose the distinctive and historical yellow color, Yellow Cab name and wing logo which manifested an agency relationship between YCA and Ezeagu.”
“It is unpersuasive to suggest that the City’s desire to break up the ownership of medallions from a few companies to many somehow controlled YCA’s choice of how its affiliated cabs would appear to the public,” the majority justices wrote.
In her dissent, however, Cobbs said, by upholding the jury’s “agency” finding, the court would effectively make affiliations liable for the actions of all drivers piloting cabs bearing their name, no matter the level of effective control they may exercise over the drivers, or the level of control exercised by City Hall over their cabs.
“… It is evident that the City did not intend for affiliations to be an insurer of all medallion owners,” Cobbs wrote. “Yet, by finding that it would be too confusing for the jury to differentiate voluntary conduct from Code requirements, that is exactly the regime that the majority has created in this case.”
Cobbs noted she could not say if allowing YCA to present evidence of the city’s regulatory regime would have swayed the decision to YCA’s benefit.
But she said she believed the court had erred in not letting the jury decide that question. For that, she said, the appellate court should have ordered a new trial.
According to Cook County court records, Jacobs was represented in the case by attorneys with the firm of Tomasik Kotin Kasserman, of Chicago.
YCA was defended by the firm of McKnight Kitzinger & Pravdic, of Chicago.