A state appeals panel said a defunct minor league baseball league doesn’t get another chance to sue its former lawyers for mishandling an attempt to collect exit fees from teams departing the league.
The Northern League had filed a malpractice complaint in Cook County Circuit Court against the firm of Gozdecki, Del Giudice, Americus & Farkas, LLP, and attorney Steven Leech, in May 2012. It ultimately lost a jury trial, and Cook County Judge Marguerite Quinn entered a final order May 9, 2017. After she denied a post-trial motion requesting a different judgment or a new trial, the league asked the Illinois First District Appellate Court to grant a new trial, saying Quinn made several procedural errors regarding testimony, disclosures, witness qualifications and jury instructions.
Justice Sheldon Harris wrote the panel’s opinion issued Dec. 28; Justices Mathias Delort and Joy Cunningham concurred.
The underlying dispute is whether the league’s lawyers should be liable for failing to include a damages provision imposing $1 million on each team that voluntarily left the league, an issue that manifested when four of the league’s eight remaining teams announced plans to switch to a rival association after the 2011 season, ultimately leading to the league’s collapse.
The league was founded in 1993 with little competition, according to court documents. But as other independent leagues developed teams, league officials started discussing exit fees as protection against desertion as early as 2005. Four of 12 teams left before any exit fee provision was enacted, then the remaining eight agreed to implement the clause. As franchises left, litigation ensued and league rules changed in the lead up to the 2011 mass exodus.
Those machinations over several years with multiple franchises and ownership groups factored into the jury trial, but the appellate panel ultimately affirmed Quinn’s judgment and said the league couldn’t prove it deserved a new trial.
The league tried to say testimony from two former owners shouldn’t have been allowed because they said they wouldn’t have signed a league agreement with an exit fee although no such agreement existed. Although the notion was hypothetical, Harris wrote, parties’ intent regarding contractual provisions is admissible and a jury is able to assess credibility and the value of such testimony.
Quinn denied testimony from a former league attorney who was going to explain why the league didn’t sue the four departing teams for liquidated damages. The panel said even if that decision was improper, the lawyer made the same points in other testimony Quinn did allow, so “any error that may have occurred was harmless.”
The panel further said Quinn was right to reject input from one of the league’s expert witnesses because he didn’t fully disclose the nature of his testimony in enough time for defendants to prepare, but said her certification of two defense expert witnesses was appropriate because their qualifications were suitably addressed in cross examination. It further rejected the league’s arguments that three portions of those experts’ testimony were inadmissible because the justices found the league’s citations incomplete or inaccurate.
Arguments over jury instructions similarly failed, Harris wrote, because the league didn’t say which instructions Quinn should’ve used or indicate it offered a proper instruction form during the trial. Further, the panel said the instructions Quinn gave “conveyed the correct principles of contract law applicable to the evidence presented at trial.”
The league also said Quinn erred in submitting two of three special interrogatories to the jury, but since there isn’t evidence showing they influenced the decision, or that the jury even considered them, there was no harm done to the league’s potential for victory.
“Plaintiff is not entitled to a perfect trial but to a fair trial free of substantial prejudice,” Harris wrote, adding that any errors that might’ve occurred didn’t have enough effect to warrant a new trial.