A divided Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that lawsuits filed under the state Drug Dealer Liability Act can only proceed if the dealer believed responsible for the distribution of the fatal dose is the named defendant, as opposed to any dealer who's active in the victim's community.
The March 21 decision was authored by Justice Robert Thomas, with concurrence from Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier and Justice Rita Garman. Justices Anne Burke, Mary Jane Theis, Thomas Kilbride and P. Scott Neville Jr. dissented in part.
The majority of justices believed part of the 1996 Drug Dealer Liability Act was constitutional, with one set of dissenting justices saying the entire law was constitutional and another set finding the entire act violated the constitution.
The majority decision enables a suit brought by Cassandra L. Wingert, on behalf of her minor son, whom she had with Michael Neuman, against the estate of Kevin Jatczak. The suit, which cited the act, was filed in 2013 in Cook County Circuit Court.
According to the suit, Neuman died in 2012 of an overdose after ingesting illegal drugs at a Berwyn home owned by Kevin Jatczak. Jatczak was allegedly involved in the sale or delivery of drugs to Neuman. Jatczak died after the suit was lodged, with the action continuing against his estate.
Section 25(b)(1) of the act makes any person liable for an overdose who "knowingly distributed or knowingly participated in the chain of distribution of an illegal drug that was actually used by the individual drug user." Section 25(b)(2) lays liability on any drug dealer active during the period of the overdose in the same community as the victim.
Associate Judge Daniel Gillespie granted Jatczak's motion to toss the suit, finding Wingert did not show Jatczak furnished or took part in the delivery of drugs to Neuman. The judge also found Section 25(b)(2), which makes liable any local street dealer, to be unconstitutional.
Wingert appealed directly to the state high court, arguing she was only required to demonstrate Jatczak took part in the chain of distribution.
Justice Thomas agreed with Gillespie that 25(b)(2) was unconstitutional, but upheld the rest of the act.
"In a truly unprecedented legislative move, Section 25(b)(2) allows a plaintiff to recover substantial civil damages from a defendant who not only was not the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages but who also has no relationship with or connection to the identified illegal drug user," Thomas wrote. "It does this by empowering the plaintiff to arbitrarily select the most convenient defendant from within a specified geographic region, whether or not that defendant in any way contributed to the drug use at issue. In fact, even where it is known with perfect certainty that the named defendant did not contribute to the drug use, section 25(b)(2) would still permit the plaintiff not only to proceed but also to prevail against that defendant."
In Thomas' view, the remainder of the act was sound, because it calls for proof the defendant was part of the distribution chain, requiring a "transactional connection" be established.
"Nothing about it allows a plaintiff to shop from a pool of strangers and choose whom from among them to hold responsible for the claimed injuries," Thomas wrote of Section 25(b)(1).
Thomas stressed he appreciated the spirit behind the law, but observed: "As tempting as it might be, we cannot close our eyes to the serious constitutional flaws in Section 25(b)(2) merely because the defendants are alleged drug dealers."
Thomas ordered the case back to circuit court for further proceedings.
Justices Burke and Neville objected to the entire act.
"In some respects, Section 25(b)(1) is even more extreme than Section 25(b)(2)," they wrote. "Section 25(b)(1) requires no proof of geographical or temporal proximity to the illegal drug use, nor does it require that the defendant’s participation in the chain of distribution involve, or be connected with, the same type of illegal drug actually used by the individual drug user. Section 25(b)(1) is equally as arbitrary and oppressive as section 25(b)(2) and equally as unconstitutional."
Justices Theis and Kilbride found the act valid.
"All participants in the market — all dealers and all users — are likely to be linked," they wrote. "Dealers at all levels together have created a demand for illegal drugs, as well as a supply chain to serve that demand. In light of that reality, the legislature sought to undermine the entire illegal drug market by adopting a new form of liability — market liability. Persons who have entered the illegal drug market in a community, who participate in and build that market and ultimately benefit from it, should bear the costs of the harm caused by that market to that community."
Wingert has been represented by the Chicago firm of Benjamin & Shapiro.
Hradisky has been represented by the Chicago firm of Scott, Halsted & Babetch.