Truck Co. Can’t Slash $54M Loss For Driver’s Road Rage Past

An Illinois appellate court on Tuesday affirmed a $54 million verdict against a trucking company that hired a driver with a history of road rage and accidents and whom a jury found responsible for a 2011 car crash that caused serious injuries to an Indiana couple.

The court said the award, which included $35 million in punitive damages, wasn’t excessive given evidence the jury heard about the driver’s record. Universal Am-Can Ltd. employed David Lee Johnson despite being aware he was convicted of nine traffic-related offenses in addition to four counts of felony reckless aggravated assault for attempting to break the headlights of a vehicle that had been tailgating him, the panel said.

The jury followed Indiana law when it found the company’s “willful and wanton misconduct” warranted substantial punitive damages for plaintiff James Denton, who had been seriously injured in the crash, the panel found.

“The jury was presented with extensive evidence regarding Johnson’s history prior to applying at UACL, as well as UACL’s internal safety policies. Despite Johnson’s history, UACL nevertheless hired him, even though doing so violated its own company policies,” the appellate court said.

It’s not the first time Illinois’ First District Appellate Court has considered this lawsuit. The court previously held in 2015 that the substantive law of Indiana, not Illinois, should govern the case, according to the opinion. The court’s prior ruling mandated that Indiana law as it related to several liabilities would be applied at trial and that the name of another driver, George Kallis, would be on the verdict form.

The trucking company had argued that the “sole protagonist” in the case is Kallis, contending it was his actions that caused the accident and Denton’s injuries. According to court documents, Kallis was driving the wrong way on an interstate highway in Indiana, causing other vehicles to swerve off the road, when Johnson, who was driving with a suspended license at the time, crashed into Denton and pushed the man’s Jeep into the fuel tank of another semitruck,

In the court’s earlier ruling, the trucking company got exactly what it asked for, in that it was “allowed to argue, albeit unsuccessfully, that the accident was caused entirely by Kallis’ negligence in driving the wrong way on the interstate,” the panel said. It just wasn’t able to prove that any of Kallis’ conduct was a proximate cause of Denton’s injuries, it said.

“Simply put, the jury’s finding of zero percent fault on kallis’ part, reflects its belief that James was injured as a result of the conduct of defendants owing to the negligent operation of the semitractor trailer truck and the willful and wanton retention of an obviously unqualified and dangerous over-the road truck driver,” the appellate court said.

Denton underwent nine surgeries as a result of his injuries from the accident, including spinal fusions, and he now has a prosthetic metal knee, according to court documents. He also has to regularly take opioid medication to manage chronic pain.

The court also scolded the company for a “flagrant disregard” for Illinois Supreme Court rules, saying even a casual reader of the defendants’ statement of facts would find it “chockablock with argumentative, conclusory allegations like this: ‘[t]here is nothing in Johnson’s driving history that would suggest he was a dangerous truck driver.””

Their “overly emphatic and inarguably hyperbolic” brief failed to include the applicable standards of review for the issues raised on appeal, the court said, and when such a standard was provided, it was erroneous,

“We reemphasize that this court is not a repository into which appellants may foist the burden of argument and legal research,” the panel said.

Judges Terrence Lavin, James Fitzgerald Smith, and Mary Ellen Coghlan sat on the panel for the appellate court.

Denton is represented by Robert J. Napleton of Motherway & Napleton LLP, Christopher T. Theisen, and James M. Roche of Theisen & Roche and Lynn D. Dowd of the Law Offices of Lynn D. Dowd.

Universal is represented by Carlton D. Fisher and Stephen R. Swofford of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP and Morley Witus and Kevin M. Aoun of Barris Sott Denn & Driker PLLC.

The case is Denton v. Universal Am-Can Ltd. et al., case number 1-18-1525, in the Appellate Court of Illinois, First District.