An Illinois appeals panel has reversed a Cook County judge’s ruling that a Uber driver could not have foreseen a Chicago couple, whom he kicked out of his vehicle in the middle of the night, would then be hit by a car, finding the Uber driver should have known such an eventuality was possible.
The Dec. 19 decision was delivered by Justice David Ellis, with concurrence from justices James Fitzgerald Smith and Nathaniel Howse Jr., of the Illinois First District Appellate Court in Chicago. The decision favored Sean Kramer and Jasmine Vega in their suit against Uber, Uber driver Farid Kessanti and Salah Bachir, who allegedly lent Kessanti the car he was using for Uber.
On the night of Oct. 4, 2014, Kramer and Vega were picked up in Chicago by Kessanti for a ride home. However, after Kramer pointed out to Kessanti he was lost, Kessanti got angry and ordered the pair to exit his car, which they did near 44th Street and Homan Avenue, according to the suit.
Kramer and Vega started walking home, but were struck in the intersection of 43rd and Kedzie streets by a vehicle driven by John Szczepaniak, who did not stop, but was arrested the next day. Szczepaniak, now 56, was sent to prison for leaving the scene, state records report. The couple suffered serious injuries, according to the suit.
Plaintiffs filed suit, alleging, among other things, Kessanti should have known it was dangerous to dump off the couple at the time and place in question, and Uber knew Kessanti was not a fit driver, because he had a history of friction with Uber passengers.
However, Cook County Circuit Judge Kathy Flanagan dismissed the suit on grounds Kessanti could not have expected the couple to be injured by a negligent driver. Szczepaniak’s actions “were an intervening, superseding cause of the Plaintiffs’ injuries that broke any causal chain” stemming from the Uber driver.
Justice Ellis found Judge Flanagan had erred, saying Kramer and Vega would not have been injured if Kessanti had allowed them to remain in his car.
“The only reason Kramer and Vega were crossing Kedzie Avenue at two in the morning is that they were forced to walk home, after being kicked out of the Uber vehicle. ‘Absent that conduct’ in wrongfully expelling Kramer and Vega from the Uber vehicle, ‘the injury would not have occurred,’” Ellis reasoned, quoting prior Illinois Second District Appellate Court rulings.
Ellis continued in this vein.
“Whatever verbiage defendants use, the analysis ultimately remains the same. Without
question, the accident here would not have occurred absent Kessanti’s conduct in expelling
Kramer and Vega from the Uber vehicle . . . he materially worsened their position,” Ellis said.
Ellis noted Kessanti could have plausibly anticipated harm could befall Kramer and Vega, given the spot where he left them was poorly lighted at that time, with a lot of traffic, including many drunken drivers departing bars.
Kessanti promised to safely deliver Kramer and Vega to their home, but “thrust” them into an environment where they were endangered, Ellis said
However, Ellis cautioned against reading too much into his findings.
“We are not holding that Szczepaniak’s alleged negligent driving was reasonably foreseeable, or that Kessanti’s actions were a proximate cause of this incident. At this early stage, with so many critical facts missing, it would be inappropriate to reach a conclusion as a matter of law, one way or the other. We hold only that questions of fact exist, precluding dismissal,” Ellis stated.
Ellis ordered the suit reinstated against Uber, Kessanti and Bachir. Plaintiffs also sued Szczepaniak, but he did not take part in the motion to dismiss that led to the appeal.
Plaintiffs are represented by the Chicago firm of Dudley & Lake.
Defendants are represented by the Chicago firms of Stellato & Schwartz, and Wilson, Elser & Moskowitz, as well as by Chicago lawyer Sidney Ezra.