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The Contribution Act Allows Contribution between Two Principals Vicariously Liable for the Negligence of a Common Agent

March 2019

By: Courtney Morso Driscoll

The Illinois Supreme Court recently held one principal could seek contribution from another principal, both of whom were held vicariously liable due to the acts of the same agent. In Sperl v. Henry, 2018 IL 123132 (IL), C.H. Robinson Company (“CHR”) and Toad L. Dragonfly Express, Inc. (“Dragonfly”) were both found vicariously liable due to the acts of DeAn Henry. CHR was a logistics company that contracted with licensed carriers to transport goods to its customers, one of which was Jewel Food Stores (“Jewel”). Henry leased a semi-tractor to Dragonfly, a federally licensed motor carrier. Through Dragonfly, Henry agreed to deliver goods for CHR to Jewel.

In the course of her delivery, Henry ran over multiple vehicles, killing plaintiffs, Joseph Sperl and Thomas Sanders, and seriously injuring plaintiff William Taluc. As a result of this accident, suit was filed against Henry, CHR, and Dragonfly for wrongful death, survival, and personal injuries.

Henry admitted negligence and liability. Dragonfly admitted liability and “united” negligence with Henry. CHR denied liability and filed a contribution action against Henry and Dragonfly. At trial, the jury found CHR was vicariously liable for Henry’s action because Henry was an agent of CHR. The jury awarded the plaintiff’s $23,775,000.00, finding CHR, Dragonfly, and Henry were jointly and severely liable for the damages.

CHR sought an apportionment of fault on the jury verdict form, pursuant to the Joint Liability Act. The trial court denied CHR’s request for an apportionment of fault, finding an apportionment of fault could not be determined against those vicariously liable rather than directly negligent. CHR paid the judgment in full, which totaled $28,653,331.08 due to post-judgment interest. After post-trial motions, the trial court found Dragonfly and CHR were equally at fault and responsible for the damages. The trial court entered a judgment on the contribution claim against Dragonfly in the amount of $14,326,665.54, or half of the judgment paid by CHR.

Dragonfly appealed to the Third District Appellate Court. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision to deny an apportionment of fault between the defendants on the jury verdict form. The appellate court also reversed the trial court’s finding of contribution against Dragonfly. The appellate court found the Contribution Act compares respective fault of various parties. As principals are not directly negligent but only negligent due to the acts of their agents, the vicariously liable parties’ could not be compared under the Contribution Act. Thus, the appellate court held there is no right of contribution among principals. Further, while CHR paid the entire judgment, it was liable for 100% of the damages caused by the agent; thus, it did not pay more than its pro rata share.

CHR appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which reversed the Third District and affirmed the trial court’s judgment against Dragonfly. The Supreme Court held the Contribution Act does not exclude vicariously liable defendants in the scope of the Act. The Court reasoned the Contribution Act defines “tortfeasors” as those “subject to liability in tort arising out of the same injury to person or property, or the same wrongful death.” 740 ILCS 100/2(a). The Court further stated the purpose of the Contribution Act is not for the recovery in tort but rather to enforce an equitable duty to share common liability. Dragonfly and CHR were both subject to liability in tort and were equally culpable as principals of Henry. Accordingly, the Supreme Court found CHR’s and Dragonfly’s pro rata share of common liability was 50%. The Supreme Court further stated allowing contribution in these circumstances promotes the purpose of the Act, which is to encourage settlements and equitable damages among tortfeasors.

In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, two principals can seek contribution from one another. This change in law could particularly impact contribution among borrowing and lending employers, where a negligent act is committed by a mutual agent.

  • Chicago Bar Association
  • Workers' Compensation Lawyers Association
  • DRI
  • The Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel
  • Illinois Self-Insurers' Association
  • Chicago Bar Association
  • Workers' Compensation Lawyers Association
  • DRI
  • The Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel
  • Illinois Self-Insurers' Association
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