Karmeier's 'plain English' opinion explains overturn of St. Clair County, appellate court case

Steve Gonzalez Oct. 20, 2005, 11:03am

Justice Lloyd Karmeier

The Illinois Supreme Court reversed judgments by the Circuit Court of St. Clair County and the Fifth Appellate District that denied American River Transportation Company a trial by jury in a Jones Act case filed by David Bowman.

Justice Lloyd Karmeier, the newest member of the high court and author of the majority opinion, stated that "anyone well versed in statutory construction, or even English grammar" could understand the Act's language at issue in the case.

Bowman filed suit against American River Transportation in St. Clair County for injuries suffered while working as a seaman aboard a harbor boat. He claimed negligence under the Jones Act for the boat's unseaworthiness, and sought maintenance and cure.

American filed a timely request for a jury trial, which was stricken by the trial court on plaintiff's motion, citing the Fifth District opinion in Allen v. Norman Brothers, Inc., 286 Ill. App 3d 1091 (1997), that only plaintiffs in Jones Act cases can demand a jury trial.

Following a bench trial in which American River Transportation stipulated to liability, the trial court awarded certain damages to Bowman, including a $325,000 judgment for pain, suffering, disability and disfigurement.

American appealed, and the appellate court affirmed in part, finding that the trial court did not err in its refusal to recognize its right to trial by jury or in its award of "pain and suffering" damages. But it ignored an opinion recently filed in the Fourth District, Hutton v. Consolidated Grain & Barge Co., 341 Ill. App. 3d 401 (2003), which holds that both parties in a Jones Act case are entitled to demand trial by jury.

“The appeal before us raises two issues: (1) whether the trial court erred in striking defendants' jury demand in this state court Jones Act case; and (2) whether the $325,000 judgment for pain, suffering, disability and disfigurement is supported by the evidence,” Karmeier wrote.

“We find the dispositive issue to be whether, pursuant to the Jones Act, a defendant may demand a jury trial in a case filed in this state, or whether that right is reserved solely for the plaintiff.

“The key sentence of the Jones Act at issue here states: 'Any seaman who shall suffer personal injury in the course of his employment may, at his election, maintain an action for damages at law, with the right of trial by jury' (46 U.S.C. App. §688(a) (2000)).

"We believe that anyone well versed in statutory construction, or even English grammar, would find the plain language of that sentence clearly states that the 'election' to be made by the seaman pertains to his choice to maintain an action 'at law,' and not his election of a 'right of trial by jury.'

"Under the principle of statutory construction known as the last antecedent doctrine, relative or qualifying words or phrases in a statute serve only to modify words or phrases which are immediately preceding and do not modify those which are more remote."

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