4-23-12; Illinois Taxpayers May Lose Twice When Two State Employees Go For A Joyride

For a while there was a large billboard on Interstate 80 near the Indiana-Illinois border that stated something like, “Ill-Annoyed About Taxes.” The billboard contained one of the many writings in Illinois to speak loudly about how this state is unable to pay its bills and obligations. Illinois taxpayers are already heavily burdened with state debt insofar as we have to pay a near-10% sales tax for every single item bought in this state. Our Gov and legislators have raised our income taxes and tolls also. Well, hold onto your seatbelts Illinois taxpayers because our State just got hit with another big bill because of a joyride taken by two state employees. 

In the appellate ruling of Isom v. Barham, our Appellate Court outlined the new debt that is to be placed on Illinois taxpayers to pay both the workers’ compensation benefits of the negligent driver of a state-owned automobile and a $1 million dollar verdict for the wrongful death of a state-employed passenger in the same vehicle. 

In Isom, the widow of a state-employed prison-dietician brought suit after her husband died in a single car automobile accident. The evidence indicated the warden of an Illinois state prison had caused the accident. Ultimately both the warden and the dietician’s widow were awarded money from the taxpayers of Illinois because of the accident.

The warden got workers’ compensation benefits since it was determined he was acting in his official capacity and within the scope of his employment when he rammed a state-owned car into a tree while driving home after stopping at a bar following a political event. In addition, the dietician’s widow got a $1 million dollar verdict when the trial court ruled the workers’ compensation exclusivity provision in Section 5 of our WC Act did not bar the prison-dietician’s widow from suing her husband’s boss, the warden, in a tort action arising from the accident. 

The case arose when the prison warden used his state-owned car to take the state’s prison director to a political event.  After dropping off the director, he and the decedent went to a bar where the warden drank a couple of beers. After the warden and the decedent left the bar, the warden drove the state- owned car off the road and into a tree.  Sadly, the dietician, who was the passenger in the car, died of his injuries at the scene of the accident.

Based on their investigation, prosecutors charged the warden with reckless homicide and he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.  This conviction was later reversed on appeal based on the argument that there had been insufficient evidence to prove the warden was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. 

In addition to the criminal charges, the decedent’s widow sued the warden for killing her husband.  During trial, the warden raised the Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusivity provision as an affirmative defense. In asserting this defense, the warden’s attorney argued that the exclusivity provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act barred recovery because the decedent had been working within the scope of his employment when he died.  Despite the widow’s arguments that her husband had not been in the scope of his employment when he died, both sides agreed and stipulated that the warden had been within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. 

The widow asked the trial court to rule as matter of law her husband was not within the scope of his employment as the prison dietician when he was riding in the car with the warden. Ultimately, both the trial court and the Appellate Court agreed with her argument and ruled her husband had been outside of the scope of his employment when he died. Of course, this ruling cleared the way for the widow to recover in her wrongful death case since she was no longer constrained from taking a smaller recovery by bringing a workers’ compensation case as a workers’ compensation widow. 

Everyone who is reading this blog undoubtedly knows Section 5 of the Workers’ Compensation Act operates to make workers’ compensation benefits the exclusive remedy for an injured employee who brings suit against a negligent co-employee. Ultimately, the trial court in Isom ruled as a matter of law Decedent had been outside the scope of his employment during the accident since Decedent accompanied the warden voluntarily and not as an obligation of his work. Other factors the court looked at to rule in favor of the widow included the fact the warden had not asked Decedent to accompany him to the fundraiser and because the warden, and not Decedent, was driving the car when the accident occurred. The Appellate Court agreed with this ruling and stated, “no reasonable person could conclude the decedent had been acting within the scope of his employment as a dietician” when he died.

As we outline in the first article above, Decedent could have been treated as a “traveling employee” because he was an employee and clearly was “traveling” when this unfortunate event occurred. We consider this another example how the Illinois courts sometimes contradict themselves to use “both sides” of the law to insure hefty benefits are provided no matter what path things need to go.

One has to feel sorry for the widow of the prison dietician since she lost her husband in such a tragic accident. Although it is sad that a life was lost, the outcome of this case raises a legal paradox: could the warden be acting within the scope of employment so he could recover workers’ compensation benefits while his state-employed passenger was, at the same time, so clearly outside the scope of employment so his widow could benefit from the more than $1 million dollar verdict she would have lost if her husband had been inside the same employment scope as his warden-boss?

Whatever happens, in this state, you can only be sure the taxpayers are the losers. We appreciate your thoughts and comments. Please do not hesitate to post them on our award-winning blog.

This article was researched and written by Ellen Keefe-Garner, J.D., RN, BSN. She is happy to send you the website for the case above and can be reached at EMKeefe@keefe-law.com.