MOUNT VERNON -- In a case with its roots in a fatal traffic accident nearly two decades ago, an appeals court has ruled in favor of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), despite failures by the agency to follow rules relating to expert witnesses and discovery.
The crash in late 2000, which led to the death of Randallynn Grater, occurred at what the plaintiffs and others at trial, described as the dangerous intersection of state Route 40 and Marine Road in Madison County.
Evidence was heard, according to the Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court opinion, that at least four fatal accidents had occurred at the intersection prior to the one involving Grater. The IDOT had committed to upgrading the intersection to construct four-way traffic lights to replace stop signs and caution signals.
In a filing with the Court of Claims, which deals with actions against the state, the Graters alleged IDOT was responsible for the wrongful death of their relative as it failed to complete the upgrade before the scheduled date, which was prior to the accident.
The Court of Claims dismissed the wrongful death action. The plaintiffs took action against the Court of Claims in Madison County Circuit Court over alleged errors in allowing expert opinion despite the IDOT failure to timely reveal and introduce its experts and testimony in the discovery stage.
The plaintiffs appealed to the Fifth District Appellate Court, which had to decide whether due process had been infringed largely because the Court of Claims allowed the IDOT to introduce experts and their opinions after the due date as laid down by Illinois Supreme Court rules. It turned on whether the plaintiffs were "surprised" because of that failure.
In ruling for the defendants, Madison County Circuit Court Judge David Dugan wrote, “To be certain, the purpose of disclosure of witness testimony is to ‘avoid unfair surprise at trial’, but this court finds that the surprise that might naturally attend an untimely disclosure does not necessarily rise to the level of a deprivation of a meaningful hearing for the purposes of due process analysis.”
In an opinion authored by Justice Melissa Chapman, with justices Thomas Welch and Judy Cates concurring, the appeals court acknowledged errors through the process, including that the IDOT did break Supreme Court rules and that the plaintiffs "did not have a meaningful opportunity to counter...expert opinions."
But this violation of the rule, according to the panel, did not rise to the level of denial of due process
"Despite the Court of Claims’ error in this case, we are constrained by law to find that this error did not result in a violation of the Graters’ due process rights," Chapman wrote.