A recent case decided by the Illinois appellate court stresses the importance of personal injury attorneys showing restraint in arguing a case to a jury, especially in cases where the defense has admitted fault. In Pleasance v. City of Chicago, No. 1-08-1510 (Ill. App. Ct 1st Dist. Dec. 14, 2009), the Illinois appellate court overturned a $12.5 million jury verdict awarded to the family of a man who was fatally shot by a Chicago police officer because of repeated improper comments by plaintiff’s counsel during the trial concerning the circumstances surrounding the death of Plaintiff’s son.
The case involved a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Chicago and a Chicago police officer who shot and killed plaintiff’s son, Michael, on March 8, 2003. The defendants admitted that Michael’s death was a result of the police officer “unintentionally discharging his weapon in the course of arresting someone else, constituting willful and wanton conduct” under the law as stated in Medina v. City of Chicago, 238 Ill. App. 3d 385, 392-93 (1992).
Because the defense admitted liability, the case went to trial on damages only. In other words, the jury’s only job was to determine damages for the plaintiff’s “loss of society,” which includes “the deprivation of love, companionship, and affection from the deceased person.” Turner v. Williams, 326 Ill. App. 3d 541, 548 (2001).
The appellate court noted that because fault was admitted, the manner in which Michael died “was wholly immaterial to the determination of loss of society. “Defendants’ liability, willful and wanton or otherwise, was not relevant to the love, affection, care, attention, companionship, comfort, guidance, and protection Pamela lost as a result of Michael’s death.” Bullard v. Barnes, 102 Ill. 2d 505, 519 (1984).
The appellate court noted that despite the fact the circumstances underlying Michael’s death were irrelevant to the trial, which concerned only the amount of damages to plaintiff for loss of society, plaintiff’s counsel made the following improper comments during the trial:
- During opening statements, plaintiff’s counsel stated that Michael was “gunned down by a Chicago police officer” and was shot “with an utter indifference to and conscious disregard for his safety”
- During closing arguments, plaintiff’s counsel argued to the jury that its “verdict is going to tell your entire community whether you’re willing to accept a police officer’s willful and wanton killing of a member of our society” and “there is no greater perversion in our rules of order in our society as when a police officer, who is sworn to protect us, shoots and kills an innocent member of our society”
- During rebuttal, plaintiff’s counsel argued “It wasn’t enough for [defendants] to kill Michael Pleasance, then they had to come in here and kick dirt on his grave”
According to the court, Plaintiff’s counsel’s comments “had no place in the instant damages trial other than to inflame the passion of the jury and influence its verdict.” The court further found that plaintiff’s counsel’s remarks “were too pervasive and insidious to have had no prejudicial effect on the jury.” Accordingly, the court reversed the jury’s verdict and remanded the case for a new trial.
As experienced Chicago personal injury and wrongful death attorneys, we become emotionally attached to our cases and to our clients. As the Pleasance case shows, however, especially in trials where the defense has admitted liability, plaintiff’s counsel must show some degree of emotional restraint in arguing our case to a jury.
For a Free Consultation with one of our top-rated injury attorneys, call Passen & Powell at (312) 527-4500.