In my last blog I touched on the concept of a plaintiff’s negligent conduct that can often derail his case and deflate expectations of a recovery. This is called contributory or comparative negligence, and, in the worse case scenario, it can be fatal to a plaintiff’s case.
Illinois is a modified comparative fault state. This means if an injured victim is determined to have been negligent and that negligence contributed, along with the defendant’s negligence, to cause the injury, the plaintiff’s recovery will be reduced. The jury must determine the percentage of negligence attributable to the plaintiff. Any recovery awarded to the plaintiff will be reduced by this percentage. BUT, and this is a big one, if the plaintiff is found to be more than fifty percent negligent, the plaintiff will recover nothing.
In my experience defendants will raise the specter of contributory negligence even if there is no evidence to support it. It is my job to keep this cancer out of the courtroom and out of the minds of jurors when the defendants have not complied with Illinois law in raising the issue. I’m a fierce advocate when it comes to filing pre-trial motions seeking to bar this evidence.
Illinois law requires the defendants to plead contributory negligence when they answer the plaintiff’s complaint in what is called an affirmative defense. If they don’t, then the law mandates they be barred from bringing the issue of blaming the victim before the jury. Ultimately, the defendant must offer evidence to support the contributory negligence affirmative defense, if they fail to do so, they cannot raise the issue before the jury.
This rarely deters defendants who masquerade it as something else. They claim the evidence that the victim of malpractice failed to follow-up with their physician is benign evidence describing their course of treatment and unrelated to their own negligence. Or they throw out an amorphous allegation unsupported by the evidence that a slip and fall victim failed to keep a proper lookout or exercise due care.
In the recent case of Lakin v Casey’s Retail Company, the Illinois Appellate Court sided with the plaintiffs. It affirmed the trial court’s refusal to allow the defendants to instruct the jury the plaintiff had the burden of proving he was not guilty of failing to keep a proper lookout or exercising proper care when he slipped and fell in a store. The court admonished the defendants for not pleading any facts beyond the vague and conclusory allegations of failure to keep a proper lookout or to use proper care that would substantiate contributory negligence. As plaintiff’s attorneys we must be vigilant in defusing this nefarious “blame game” seeking to shift responsibility to our clients who are innocent victims.