By Lauraann Wood
An Illinois woman urged the state Supreme Court on Thursday to reinstate a jury’s $8 million punitive damages verdict against an ex-boyfriend who didn’t appear in court to defend himself against her abuse claims at trial, arguing an appellate panel slashed her award against precedent and its own reasoning.
The woman, identified as Jane Doe, told Illinois’ justices during oral argument the intermediate court improperly substituted its own judgment for the jury’s when it found her punitive damages award unreasonably excessive and reduced it to $1 million. The panel’s decision contradicts 175 years of Illinois precedent stating juries should receive great latitude with their verdicts, and failed to even follow a bright-line reasonableness test it cited from Third District appellate precedent, her attorney, Daniel Voelker of Voelker Litigation Group, told the justices.
… Voelker asked the justices, “respectfully, how would the court know that’s enough?”.
“They didn’t hear the evidence. The jury heard the evidence,” he said. The jury only heard from Doe before awarding her a total of $9 million in 2019 because Parrillo failed to defend himself against her allegations of physical, mental and sexual abuse. The trial court observed the abuse as rape, and indicated in later proceedings that Parrillo’s counsel had engaged in one of the most egregious examples of gamesmanship it had ever experienced, Voelker told the state high court.
Voelker argued Parrillo’s failure to defend himself at trial should “absolutely not” factor into the state high court’s review because punitive damages don’t reflect the quality of a defendant’s representation. Whether the jury considered Parrillo and his counsel’s trial behavior during deliberations is something “we’ll never know, but that’s the predicament he created for himself,” he said.
Voelker also slammed Neville’s representation that Parrillo’s trial counsel had been improperly blocked from participating in a post-trial jury instruction conference. The trial court had “bent over backwards” to give Parrillo a fair trial, and his counsel has no foundation to submit legal documents characterizing events from a courtroom she wasn’t in, he argued.
Part of the issue with determining a punitive award’s reasonableness is that Illinois doesn’t have a bright-line test on the issue, Voelker told the justices. The lower appellate panel seemed to interpret appellate precedent in Blount v. Stroud to find that punitive damages awards shouldn’t total more than four times a compensatory award, but that contradicts state precedent, he said.
If the justices agree with that interpretation, however, they should at least raise Doe’s punitive damages to $4 million, Voelker argued. The intermediate panel’s 1:1 reduction was arbitrary and capricious, and “after spending their time and reviewing the jury instructions and reaching a unanimous verdict, that verdict … should be sustained,” he argued.