Here’s a tip for any would-be hit and run drivers out there: Make sure you do not leave your vehicle’s license plate at the scene before you flee. We will find you.
That’s what happened after a husband and wife struck a Chicago bicyclist at the intersection of North Franklin Street and West Hubbard Street. Recently, we made them pay, resolving the case for more than eleven times the amount of our client’s medical bills. It is very unusual for an Illinois personal injury case to settle for an amount so much in excess of a victim’s medical bills.
The incident took place on the afternoon of May 7, 2012. Our client, a 23 year old man, was riding his bike south on Franklin. When he reached the intersection of Franklin and Hubbard he stopped at a stop sign before beginning to turn left to proceed east on Hubbard. The couple was north on Franklin in a 2011 BMW 535Xi. The wife was driving, her husband seated next to her in the vehicle. Initially, she stopped at the intersection. But, as the cyclist passed in front of her, in the midst of his turn, she accelerated striking the right side of his bike with the front of the car. The cyclist’s face collided hard with the pavement cracking two of his front teeth. The driver stopped for a moment. She saw that the young man was bleeding from his mouth. He spit out pieces of his broken teeth onto the sidewalk. The front passenger side window was down and, shouting over her husband, she said that the crash was not her fault then sped away. The couple shared no information about who they were.
As the cyclist stood there shocked and bloodied a man who witnessed the collision from an “El” train pulling into the nearby Merchandise Mart station approached. He said that he saw what happened and shared his contact information. As the two of them stood there they saw something unexpected laying in the street, the front license plate from the vehicle. The cyclist figured that it had lodged between his chain ring and bike’s frame and pulled free. When he brought the license plate number to us it was easily to get title information on the vehicle and to track down the owner. The plate itself was turned over to the Chicago Police Department. Strangely, and disappointingly, it turned out that the driver was a former United States ambassador to a European nation. Her husband is the founder of a very well known Chicago real estate company. Apparently, breeding and basic human decency do not necessarily go hand in hand.
Once we contacted the couple we hoped that they would do the right thing. Our client needed extensive dental work and was compiling medical and dental bills he could not afford to pay. He did not have health insurance. Better angels failed to appear, however. The couple and their insurer refused a very reasonable settlement proposal. We filed a lawsuit alleging both negligence and willful and wanton misconduct. The case remained in litigation for years. I took the depositions of the driver and her husband. Neither were repentant in the slightest. During the husband’s deposition, with a look of annoyance, asked if I was nearly done. He had “important” business to attend to. He remained under examination until I felt quite sure that he had provided me with all of the information I required.
The possibility of punitive damages was very real. Different from compensatory damages, punitive damages are meant to punish a wrongdoer rather than to compensate an injury victim for medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering. Punitive damages are only in play where it can be proven that a defendant was not merely negligent but either acted with malicious intent or with a reckless disregard for the safety of another person. There is case law in Illinois that allows a jury to consider punitive damages where there was flight from the scene of a crash. We felt that we had at least enough evidence to put the issue to a jury. The defendants faced the very real possibility that a jury would be outraged by their conduct and could penalize them substantially. Insurance does not and cannot pay an award of punitive damages. We felt that the possibility of punitive damage made the defendants and their insurance company willing to bargain and reach a settlement.