The tort litigation industry is seeing new battles emerge at the micro and macro level regarding the techniques and rules used on Wall Street, in tort trials, and by government to shift financial responsibility for payments for expenses arising from legitimate and illegitimate tort claimants. The battles are ongoing at both the micro and macro level, and will take years to resolve. Over time, billions and ultimately trillions of dollars are at stake when one considers direct and indirect payments, plus stock price changes, legal fees, and other associated costs and expenses of tort litigation and ancillary litigation. Posts over the next few weeks will present examples of the battles and their consequences. Throughout, one key is to look for whether, when and how one person/entity (or a group) are allowed to make deals that increase or decrease the risks and financial obligations for others involved in the same tort.
Today’s example is a micro battle being fought in Illinois in a case arising from falling scaffolding killing Mr. Ready during a construction project at a power plant. One issue is whether fault can be apportioned at trial against defendants that settled before trial. Why does that matter? Because the plaintiff and one or more defendants can and may agree to a settlement contract because the settlement monies paid 1) will give plaintiff some level of financial certainty and 2) will shift to the remaining defendants the risk and financial obligation for the plaintiff’s losses as determined at trial because the settlement, if approved, will by statute block the remaining defendants from suing the settling defendants for “contribution,” and may block the trial defendants from asking the jury to apportion a percentage of fault to the settling parties. Further, the settlement also may influence whether the remaining defendants can offer trial proof of the actions of the settled defendant even if even if the jury is not allowed to apportion a percentage of fault to the settled defendants.
So, the most basic macro issue is whether and when this private settlement contract between three private parties will become the operative event that will enable the government (the courts) to take pre-existing claims and legal rights of the other defendants. In this instance, the defendants are Mr. Ready’s employer, the general contractor and a subcontractor. In teh case, the employer and the general contractor settled, leaving the subsontractor exposed to a trial, which it lost. And, of course, lurking in the background are the insurers for those entities. But, for the macro level, bear in mind that some companies are self-insured, and some companies were insured but that insurance is or may be gone because the insurer actually is insolvent or may be trying to run away from “incurred but not reported” losses (that is, future losses) by ceasing its business operations and/or invoking a dissolution process specific to insurers. And, the issues arise in the context of events during a trial held during a period of time for which a “tort reform statute was said to be applicable.
In short, the Illinois Supreme Court held, under the statute, that the jury could not apportion fault against the settled defendants. Thus, the private settlement was converted into a government enforced agreement with legal consequences for the remaining defendant, which had not objected to the settlement. Left open by the Supreme Court was whether the jury should have been allowed to hear evidence about the actions (or inaction) of the settled parties. On remand, the appellate court held that the trial court should have allowed the jury to hear evidence of the actions of the settled defendants. The case may now be headed back to the Supreme Court of Illinois.
The Illinois Supreme Court’s opinion from late 2008 is here (for now, but will move later when the opinion is archived.) Here is the June 30, 2009 opinion of the appellate court on remand. Here is a press article updating the case history, and explaining that the case is perhaps headed back to the Illinois Supreme Court. Here prior commentary by a large law law firm that represents corporate defendants.