Appellate court affirms Mendelsohn, reduces damages

Ann Knef Mar. 7, 2006, 8:06am

The Fifth District Appellate Court has affirmed a Madison County verdict in favor of a woman whose car was wrongfully repossessed, but modified the judgment by reducing punitive damages from $500,000 to $225,000.

In 2004, Lorraine Turner successfully sued Firstar Bank and Shamrock Recovery Service for removing her car from her home in March 2002, even though she had clear title to it. The bank directed Shamrock to tow the car claiming there was a remaining $314.96 loan balance. Turner also claimed personal items had been stolen from her car while it was impounded.

Circuit Judge Ralph Mendelsohn presided over Turner v. Firststar Bank, which returned a verdict against the defendant.

Appellate Judge Stephen J. Spomer authored the court's opinion, writing that the misconduct did not support punitive damages of $500,000. He also wrote that if Turner does not agree to the reduced damages, then the trial court shall order a new trial.

"The ordering of remittitur in lieu of wholly setting aside an excessive jury verdict, the affirmance of which would be erroneous, has consistently been acknowledged to promote the ends of justice and the termination of litigation," Spomer wrote.

Remittitur is a process by which jurisdiction is transferred back from the appellate court to the trial court. If the judgment has been modified or reversed, as in this case, the trial court takes certain steps ordered by the appellate court.

"The trial court must afford the plaintiff the choice of agreeing or refusing to the entry of a remittitur, with the proviso that the plaintiff's refusal to agree to the entry of a remittitur will result in the ordering of a new trial," Spomer wrote.

Turner's vehicle was repossessed on March 11, 2000.

On May 9, 2002, she obtained a default judgment against both defendants for $25,000 in compensatory and $25,000 in punitive damages. Firstar filed a motion to vacate the judgment, which was granted.

Shamrock satisfied the judgment against it in January 2005.

Testimony during the trial revealed system-wide accounting problems. A bank employee, an adverse witness, testified that Turner's car never should have been repossessed.

On appeal, Firstar argued for reversal because the plaintiff may not recover twice for a single injury.

But plaintiff's counsel countered that there would be no double recovery, because even though the plaintiff was fully compensated by Shamrock for her compensatory damages and even though Shamrock satisfied the punitive damages award, Firstar is sill liable for punitive damages.

"We agree with the plaintiff," Spomer wrote. "In Illinois, an award of punitive damages is not subject to contribution...with regard to the single injury rule, 'punitive damages should be assessed separately.'

"We further conclude that in the case at bar the punitive damages assessed against the defendant by the jury do not duplicate the punitive or compensatory damages paid by Shamrock, and no issue of double recovery exists.

"Because we conclude that the assessment of punitive damages against the defendant will not lead to a double recovery, we reject the defendant's related argument that the case is now moot because Shamrock satisfied the judgment against Shamrock."

Firstar also argued that the trial court erred when it did not enter a judgment notwithstanding the verdict because Turner failed to prove her conversion claim.

"There is no doubt that in this case the evidence....viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, does not so overwhelmingly favor the defendant with regard to whether the plaintiff had a right to the possession of the property in question that no contrary verdict could possibly stand," Spomer wrote. "The trial court did not err..."

Firstar argued that punitive damages were improper in this case under Illinois law, because there were no compensatory damages in the case.

"This argument is belied by the facts found in the record on appeal," Spomer wrote. "The trial court clearly and unequivocally found that the plaintiff in this case was entitled to compensatory damages in the amount of $25,000 for the actions of the defendant and Shamrock.

"The fact that these compensatory damages were satisfied by Shamrock prior to the trial against the defendant does not negate the existence of the award of damages or of the injuries from which that award flowed."

Justices Hopkins and Chapman concurred.

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