A woman lies unconscious in a Chicago alley at night time. The exact reason for her unconsciousness is unknown, but at trial she testified that she and her boyfriend had gone out to eat, and “had a few beers.” Earlier in the week, and again on that evening, she had not been feeling well and walked down the alley on her way to Walgreens “to get something for her stomach.” A Chicago Police Department car driven by an on-duty officer came along in the alley, and ran her over. She suffered numerous fractures.
Illinois Statute Regarding Negligence
There was in effect at the time an Illinois statute that provided:
“A public employee is not liable for his act or omission in the execution or enforcement of any law unless such act or omission constitutes willful and wanton conduct (745 ILCS 10/2-202).” Willful and wanton conduct differs from ordinary negligence as it is "a course of action which shows an actual or deliberate intention to cause harm or which, if not intentional, shows an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others.”
It is a difficult standard to meet, and if the law applied, would negate liability on the part of the City, as plaintiff (the injured party) would be unable to prove that the officer essentially intended to run her over.
Should Willful Wanton Standard Apply?
Plaintiff’s attorney argued that the willful wanton standard should not apply, as there was uncertainty as to what the officer was doing when he ran over the woman. If he was merely patrolling the area, he would be under the same duty as any other driver, subject to the law of negligence. Negligence means not doing something that a reasonably careful person would do, or doing something that a reasonably careful person would not do. A jury could readily find the officer negligent for running over a prone body in an alley.
Jury Finds Negligence Standard Applies
At trial, the jury did find that the negligence standard should apply, also finding that the plaintiff was 50% responsible for her injuries. After including $530,000 in its total award to plaintiff, the jury then discounted by 50% plaintiff’s negligence, resulting in a net award to plaintiff of $265,000.
Under Illinois law, a plaintiff can prevail if his/her negligence is 50% or less of total negligence. As in this case, the percentage of plaintiff’s negligence then reduces the jury’s award. The theory underlying the law of comparative (ie. plaintiff’s) negligence is sound- if an injured person is more responsible than anyone else for causing his/her own injuries, (s)he should not be entitled to compensation.