Defense Verdict - Negligent Entrustment case where Plaintiffs asked the jury to award $43 million
Lori A. Vanderlaan and Mathew K. Hargrave
Between February 18 and March 6, 2020, Lori A. Vanderlaan and Mathew K. Hargrave tried a double-fatality negligent entrustment case to a jury verdict in the Law Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, resulting in a not guilty verdict for their car dealership client.
On May 1, 2017 the 23 year old son of the used car sales manager for the defendant auto dealership and a potential customer, was driving a dealership-owned BMW 328i which was his father/used car sales manager’s demo vehicle. Evidence was presented that the son had submitted financing with a potential he may purchase the vehicle and thus, plaintiffs argued his father/used car sales manager permitted him to drive the vehicle, without restrictions, on a test drive. Plaintiffs presented evidence that the dealership used car sales manager knew at the time he permitted his son to drive the car that his son had multiple prior speeding tickets and a prior DUI 3 years before the subject incident, for which he had his license suspended. On the date of the incident, the defendant driver was driving his 22 and 28 year old friends home from a bar where they had been drinking together for over 3 hours. On the drive home from the bar, when they reached a straight-away on a lightly-traveled and unlit road abutting a forest preserve in suburban Cook County, the driver depressed the accelerator to nearly 100% and reached a speed of 94mph before he lost control of the vehicle, causing a multiple-rollover accident which killed both passengers. Plaintiffs alleged the driver’s father/dealership’s used car sales manager negligently entrusted the dealership-owned vehicle to his son earlier in the evening because he knew or should have known his son was likely to drive the vehicle recklessly based on the prior speeding tickets, prior DUI, and various personality traits which, according to Plaintiffs’ retained human factors/psychology expert, made it more likely that the driver would drive recklessly. In deposition testimony, however, BVH elicited admissions from this expert that only those with her expertise and training would know of a correlation between these factors and a propensity to drive badly.
The defendant driver admitted liability. BVH represented the dealership and the case was tried on the issue of negligent entrustment by the father/used car sales manager as an agent of the dealership and damages. During motions in limine, at the request of Plaintiffs, the Court found as a matter of law that the father/manager was acting in the scope of his employment at the time of the alleged entrustment and disallowed the defense for the dealership from arguing that issue or that the father/manager had not given permission for a test drive on the night of the incident. Thus, the jury was instructed that if the father/used car sales manager negligently entrusted the vehicle, based on the father’s knowledge of his son’s driving record and the likelihood he would drive recklessly on the evening in question, so too was the dealership.
In order to contest the negligent entrustment issue, BVH argued that the prior driving record was not reflective of the driver’s likelihood to drive recklessly on the night of the incident and that because the driver had a valid Illinois driver’s license, the driver’s father/dealership’s used car sales manager could rely upon the same as to his fitness to drive. The BVH defense team hired a psychology/human factors expert to provide opinions as to the progression of risk taking activity as one matures, the timing of the defendant driver’s past driving transgressions (in his teens) and the upward trajectory in his maturity and safe driving record for three years since his DUI as evidence supporting it was not likely he would drive recklessly on the night at issue. The expert also opined that evidence of a valid license, without evidence of unsafe driving to the contrary since it was re-issued after the DUI was further support for the father/used car sales manager’s conclusion he did not believe it was likely his son would drive recklessly.
The defense also argued that decedents were contributorily negligent in drinking and then riding with the driver after 3 hours at bar drinking together. At trial, BVH focused on the drinking and the decision of three grown adult men to drink together for over three hours and then ride in a car together. BVH focused on the responsibility of the decedents to not ride in a vehicle with someone who had been drinking, and elicited trial testimony from each family that the parents had counseled their children in the dangers of riding in a car with someone who had been drinking. Testimony was also elicited from one family member that their son could very easily have requested an Uber instead of allowing his friend to drive him home. In closing argument, BVH asked the jury to assess whether Plaintiffs’ decedents had taken responsibility for their actions in drinking with the driver of the vehicle prior to allowing him to drive them. BVH stressed that notwithstanding the tragic and devastating consequences of this accident, there has not been any evidence that suggest that its dealership client did anything wrong, other than own the vehicle.
The 28 year old passenger was survived by 2 parents, 4 siblings, and 1 half sibling (7 total family members), and the 22 year old passenger was survived by 2 parents and one sibling (3 total family members). Plaintiffs’ attorneys collectively asked the jury to award $43 million to the families.
The jury deliberated for just over an hour the first day as closings and jury instructions took most of that day and continued deliberations the following day for approximately 5 hours. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the father/manager and the car dealership, finding no negligent entrustment of the vehicle and therefore 0% liability for the incident. The driver, who admitted negligence and causation, was assessed 65% fault and each passenger was assessed 35% contributory fault. The 27 year old’s family was awarded a net $2.6 million after the 35% reduction ($4 million gross) and the 22 year old’s family was awarded a net of $1.82 million after the 35% reduction ($2.8 million gross). The jury’s net verdicts were each less than the last pending offers to each Plaintiff, and the offers had been withdrawn as of the time it was announced that the jury had reached a verdict.