Ill. SC: Other defendants lack standing to challenge denial

Jessica M. Karmasek May 10, 2012, 10:55am


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (Legal Newsline) - The Illinois Supreme Court said last week that only the party moving to substitute a judge has standing -- if that motion is wrongly denied -- to ask that all subsequent orders entered in the case be declared null and void.

In the case at issue, a Cook County jury awarded more than $20 million to the families of three people killed in a 2002 collision in Wanatah, Ind.

Plaintiffs Tracey Powell, for the deceased Adam McDonald; George Kakidas, for the deceased Diana Kakidas; and Alexander Chakonas, for the deceased Christina Chakonas, each sued driver Jamie L. Reeves, Dean Foods Company, Alco of Wisconsin Inc., Alder Group and others not included in the current appeal.

Reeves was driving eastbound on U.S. Route 30 near Lincoln Street in Wanatah at the time of the accident in July 2002.

Reeves was employed by Alco, and the truck he was driving was owned by Alder Group. The trailer he was hauling was owned by Dean Illinois Dairies LLC, which was loaded with Dean Food's milk products.

Christina Chakonas, along with McDonald and Diana Kakidas, approached U.S. Route 30 on Lincoln Street. After stopping, she began to turn left, trying to cross U.S. Route 30. Reeves then struck her vehicle as it crossed the eastbound lanes, killing all three passengers.

The plaintiffs alleged that the corporate defendants were vicariously liable for Reeves' negligent driving and that Reeves was speeding, was in excess of his federal hours of service requirements, and did not brake until four seconds after the collision.

Following the jury verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, the defendants appealed. In particular, they argued that the circuit court erred in denying Alder Group's motion for substitution of judge.

The Appellate Court for the First District agreed with the defendants that the court erred in denying Alder Group's motion. Accordingly, it reversed the lower court's order denying the motion, and vacated all orders entered in the case subsequent to the denial.

The appellate court also remanded the case for a new trial before another trial judge.

In response, the plaintiffs appealed the appellate court's decision vacating the jury verdict and remanding the case for a new trial.

The state's high court, in its 6-0 opinion posted May 1, disagreed with the appellate court's finding that all of the defendants have standing to challenge the circuit court's denial of Alder Group's motion for substitution of judge.

"Aside from the general claim that they have been prejudiced by the judgments entered against them, and that they have a personal stake and a direct, immediate and substantial interest in the outcome, defendants fail to demonstrate how they were prejudiced by the trial court's ruling," Justice Robert R. Thomas wrote for the Court.

"The fact that the jury entered verdicts against defendants does not establish prejudice. Otherwise, as plaintiffs observe, a losing party could claim nearly any error, against any party, as a basis for reversal without a showing of prejudice."

The Court noted that Dean Foods and Alco each filed their own motions for substitution of judge, which the circuit court granted.

"Consequently, those defendants obtained all that was asked for, and everything to which they were entitled, in the trial court," Thomas explained in the Court's 10-page ruling. "Defendant Reeves did not file a motion for substitution of judge as of right. Therefore, Reeves cannot now complain that he was erroneously denied his right to substitution of judge."

Although Reeves argues he did not file a motion following the denial of Alder Group's motion, because to do so would have been "futile," he could have filed the motion to at least preserve the issue on appeal, the Court said.

"Or, had Reeves believed Judge (Patricia) Banks was prejudiced and that he could not receive a fair trial before her, Reeves could have filed a petition for substitution of judge for cause pursuant to section 2-1001(a)(3) of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-1001(a)(3) (West 2006)," Thomas wrote.

"Having done neither, Reeves cannot now complain that he was denied a substitution of judge as of right, or that the trial court erred in denying Alder Group's motion."

The justice continued, "It is clear that defendants Dean Foods Company, Alco of Wisconsin, Inc., and Reeves are asserting a claim for relief based upon the rights of Alder Group, rather than asserting their own claims."

The Court vacated the appellate court's decision with regard to Alco, Dean Foods and Reeves; reinstated the circuit court's judgment concerning the three defendants; and remanded the case to the appellate court to address the remaining issues raised by the three defendants on appeal.

Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride didn't take part in the decision.

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