Illinois First District Appellate Court
CHICAGO — A state appeals court has ruled a Hoffman Estates behavioral health hospital must face a new trial over a woman's allegations that the hospital owes her $1 million for a "vile and shocking" letter she was sent by a former hospital billing employee.
The underlying complaint involves an unnamed woman who sought damages for emotional injuries allegedly inflicted by the letter sent by a former employee of Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital. The hospital denied the woman’s allegations, saying the former employee was solely responsible for the injuries, while filing a counterclaim against the employee.
Although a jury delivered a verdict in favor of the woman, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Mary Minella vacated that verdict after finding it inconsistent with the jury’s answer to a special question about who caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
Illinois First District Appellate Justice Joy V. Cunningham | Illinoiscourts.gov
The woman appealed Minella’s ruling to the Illinois First District Appellate Court, arguing the question should never have been given to the jury. Appellate Justice Joy Cunningham wrote the opinion issued July 26. Justices Mathias Delort and Maureen Connors concurred.
According to court documents, Michelle Morrison worked in the Alexian Brothers billing department from 2005-2010, and after her termination sent several patients “disturbing, anonymous letters, always on stationery bearing the hospital’s letterhead. The letters referenced private information from the patients’ mental health records … of a vile and shocking personal nature,” eventually traced back to Morrison’s admission that she took home 50 patient records while employed.
The initial jury award was $1 million in damages in favor of the woman. In response to the hospital’s counterclaim against Morrison, based on her alleged “criminal conduct,” and a request for the jury to apportion fault, the jury determined the hospital was 20 percent responsible for Morrison’s conduct. However, the jury also determined the hospital did not act with intent to harm the woman. Further, in response to special question, or interrogatory, submitted to them by the court, the jurors determined “Morrison was the sole proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.”
“There is no question that the jury’s responses to the general verdict and the special interrogatory in this case were inconsistent,” Cunningham wrote. The panel attributed confusion to the jury’s having to answer “the sole proximate cause special interrogatory after just apportioning fault between the hospital and Morrison.”
The panel said the jury could have determined Morrison’s actions directly caused the injuries, yet she could only send the letters because hospital staff was negligent in allowing her to bring home sensitive patient information. Cunningham wrote that the jury was nott given a clear definition of “sole proximate cause,” and said that term can confuse jurors because it is not broadly used in daily speech.
“The ‘sole proximate cause’ instruction would have been improper here due to Morrison’s status as a party in the case,” Cunningham wrote. “In turn, then, it was improper to submit the sole proximate cause special interrogatory to the jury since there could be no accompanying instruction on sole proximate cause in light of Morrison’s status as a party to the lawsuit.”
The panel determined the jury should not have been given the specific question about sole proximate cause — “it undoubtedly had a confusing effect,” Cunningham wrote — and, as such, reversed Minella’s judgment and ordered a new trial. Cunningham continued that the panel did not consider any of the other arguments both parties presented on appeal.
According to Cook County court records, the plaintiff has been represented by attorneys with the firm of Parente & Norem in Chicago.
Alexian Brothers has been defended by attorneys with the firm of Hinshaw & Culbertson in Chicago.