Appeals panel divides over number of 'sole' causes, denies paralyzed jockey's try for new trial vs Arlington

By DM Herra | Jul 5, 2018

A divided state appellate court sided with the jury in a lawsuit against Arlington Park Racecourse by a jockey paralyzed in an accident, reversing a Cook County judge’s decision to grant a new trial because the jury had been improperly instructed to consider whether two different things could be considered the “sole” cause of an injury, simultaneously.

Arlington Park   bogdanstepniak [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A divided state appellate court sided with the jury in a lawsuit against Arlington Park Racecourse by a jockey paralyzed in an accident, reversing a Cook County judge’s decision to grant a new trial because the jury had been improperly instructed to consider whether two different things could be considered the “sole” cause of an injury, simultaneously.

In their decision, justices David Ellis and Eileen O’Neill Burke of the Illinois First District Appellate Court said the key question was whether more than one player in a case can be considered to bear responsibility for the “sole proximate cause of injury.” Plaintiffs Rene and Natalia Douglas said no, and argued in a posttrial motion that the jury should never have received the sole proximate cause instruction. The trial court agreed and granted a new trial, but the appellate court reversed that decision.

Rene Douglas was a professional jockey who was injured in a fall during a race at Arlington in 2009. The fall caused one of Douglas’ vertebrae to break, paralyzing him from the chest down. He and his wife, Natalia, sued the racetrack, its owner, Churchill Downs, and both the manufacturer and distributor of the track’s synthetic surface, Polytrack. The Douglases settled their claims against all but Arlington and Churchill Downs.

At trial, Douglas presented expert testimony that the track had not been properly maintained. Because the dynamic shear angle – the angle that determines if a falling object will slide along a surface on impact or pocket into it – of the track was too high, it caused Douglas to “pocket” when he hit the ground, leading to his catastrophic injury.

In their defense, Arlington and Churchill Downs argued that track employees followed the instructions provided by the track manufacturer for care of the surface. None of the materials or training provided by the manufacturer includes any information on dynamic shear angle, according to court documents. The racecourse maintained that there was nothing wrong with the track and implied that if there was a problem the manufacturer was liable, not the course.

The defendants also posed an alternative theory as to the cause of Douglas’ injury. They said another horse clipped Douglas’ horse as Douglas came up from behind, causing him to fall. The defendants said that jockey was the sole proximate cause of the injury.

The racetrack asked the judge to give the jury sole proximate cause instruction, and the trial court agreed over Douglas’ objection. The jury found that a party other than the defendant was the sole proximate cause of the injury. The Douglases then filed their posttrial motion, arguing the jury should never have received that instruction because the defendant claimed both that the other jockey was the sole proximate cause of the injury, and that the track manufacturer’s failure to train track staff on dynamic shear angle was also the sole proximate cause of the injury. There could not, the plaintiffs said, be two sole proximate causes. The trial court agreed and granted a new trial.

In reversing the trial court’s decision, Ellis and Burke said the critical piece of the puzzle isn’t how many parties are to blame, only that the defendant is not one of them.

“The critical point here is that the defendant’s level of contribution to the plaintiff’s injuries is 0 percent,” Ellis wrote in the majority opinion. “Whether 100 percent of the blame falls on Non-Party A, Non-Party B, or both, is of no import. The sole proximate cause theory should be just as viable with two or more nonparty actors as it is with a single nonparty.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Robert E. Gordon disagreed vehemently with the majority’s opinion. He said the jury should never have received the instruction and the court was within its discretion to grant a new trial. He also accused the majority of a “tortured” reading of grammar to find that more than one party can be a sole proximate cause.

“The sole proximate cause instruction contemplates just that – the ‘sole’ proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury,” Gordon wrote. “Any competent speaker of English would recognize that sole means one.”

According to Cook County court records, the Douglases have been represented by attorneys with the firm of Power Rogers & Smith, of Chicago.

Arlington Park is represented by the firm of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, of Chicago, and the firm of Patton & Ryan LLC, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Arlington Park Churchill Downs Circuit Court of Cook County Illinois First District Appellate Court Patton and Ryan LLC Power Rogers and Smith PC Seyfarth Shaw, LLP

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