Voelker Litigation Group wins a reversal in landmark decision on the award of punitive damages in Illinois!

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On November 18, 2021, the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois reversed the decision of the Appellate Court to reduce punative damages in the Parillo vs. Doe case from $8 million to $1 million and reinstated the $8 million judgement.

Some excerpts from the decision follow:

In Circuit Court, Judge Varga characterized the defense’s conduct as “the most audacious attempt to undermine the judicial process which this Court has seen in over twenty-four years.”

Judge Varga revisited his conclusion that [Parrillo’s attorneys] abandoned the case:

“Did Ms. Muth or Mr. Holstein seek to participate during the trial, despite standing in the hallway and looking through the glass doors? Participation during trial means opening statements, examination of witnesses, and closing arguments. The only act Ms. Muth or Mr. Holstein did through the trial was file and argue a motion for mistrial after the jury entered the jury room to begin deliberations. The Court denied the motion. *** Did Ms. Muth and Mr. Holstein make a conscious decision not to participate during trial? Did they abandon the trial? The Court pressed them: after the Emergency Motion to Continue Trial was not presented and the case remained for trial in [Judge Varga’s courtroom], what were they going to do? The Court concludes that they walked away from the trial and abandon[ed] it.”

Judge Varga then summarized his impressions:

“[T]he defendant lied in an affidavit to seek a trial continuance, the defense attorneys failed to follow a well-known and well-understood circuit court rule ***, and the defense attorneys and defendant abandoned the trial. In conclusion the title of defendant’s attempt should read, ‘A Conspiracy to Undermine the Integrity of the Judicial Process—or— How Not to Get a Trial Continuance in the Law Division.’ First, lie; second, don’t follow rules; and third, if the first and second don’t work, don’t show up for trial.”

In 2020, The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision in every respect, except as to punitive damages.

The appellate court further held that Judge Varga’s decision to proceed with the trial in Parrillo’s absence did not violate due process. He and his attorneys had notice of the trial, but Muth and Holstein abdicated their ethical obligations to their client.

The court reasoned:

“Counsel refused to participate in jury selection or trial or take steps to properly present the motion for a continuance to the presiding judge. Parrillo filed an untruthful affidavit. Together, this appears more like a tactic to secure a continuance than a series of unfortunate events. We do not know when Parrillo learned of his counsel’s refusal to participate in the trial, to walk away and take their chances. Either Parrillo chose to rely on (and perhaps participate) in his attorneys’ decision or laid low to conceal his falsehoods.”

The appellate court then rejected Parrillo’s contention that the amount of compensatory damages was excessive.

“Based on the evidence in the record, we cannot say the amount awarded exceeded the range of fair and reasonable compensation or was so large as to shock the judicial conscience.”

Finally, the appellate court addressed Parrillo’s argument that the jury’s $8 million punitive damages award violated due process. The appellate court… identified three guideposts to determine whether punitive damages pass constitutional muster. The appellate court found Parrillo’s arguments on each guidepost uncompelling…The court concluded that punitive damages eight times the amount of compensatory damages crosses that line. Accordingly, the court reduced Doe’s punitive damages to $1 million.

This court allowed Doe’s petition for leave to appeal.

The Illinois Supreme Court considered Doe’s case…Regarding reprehensibility, it instructed reviewing courts to consider several factors, including whether “the harm caused was physical as opposed to economic; the tortious conduct evinced an indifference to or a reckless disregard of the health or safety of others; the target of the conduct had financial vulnerability; the conduct involved repeated actions or was an isolated incident; and the harm was the result of intentional malice, trickery, or deceit, or mere accident.”

Parrillo asserts that reprehensibility is “impossible” to consider given the absence of a trial record. We disagree. As evidenced by the photographs introduced as trial exhibits, her injuries were undoubtedly physical. Further, Parrillo’s conduct showed not simply an indifference or reckless disregard for Doe’s health, but actual intent to harm her on five occasions. On one of those occasions, December 12, 2015, Parrillo apparently told Doe that he would “ruin” her and that “things” would “get worse” for her while they would “get fun” for him. Then he advised her to “look over her shoulder” and “flee.” Judge Varga, while acknowledging that he was not the trier of fact, stated that he listened to Doe’s testimony that she was “the victim of sexual assault—in the old days, it was more descriptive, it was rape,” as well as the victim of physical and psychological assault. He described the evidence: “The facts were, they were intentional acts. It was a physical act. You know, scars. I remember that. *** I mean, it was mental, it was sexual abuse, which was physical.” When Neville mentioned reprehensibility and maintained that the jury could not make that determination because Parrillo did not testify and “they didn’t hear both sides,” Judge Varga responded quickly: “Reprehensible conduct? She said he sexually assaulted her. Ain’t that reprehensible?”

In conclusion, the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois reversed the appellate court’s judgment as to punitive damages and affirm that judgment in all other respects, and we affirm the trial court’s judgment. Appellate court judgment affirmed in part and reversed in part. Circuit court judgment affirmed.

Link to full transcript…

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