Illinois Supreme Court to Debate Dramshop Act Recovery Cap

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Tomorrow morning, the Illinois Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Rogers v. Imeri. Rogers poses the question when the Dramshop Act recovery cap applies and other defendants have settled, how is the maximum exposure of the Illinois Insurance Guaranty Fund calculated? Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court opinions in Rogers is here.

Rogers arose from the tragic death of the plaintiffs' son in a drunk driving accident.   The plaintiffs settled with the driver of the vehicle as well as receiving a settlement under their own policy. The plaintiffs sued the establishment which allegedly served the driver, but the defendant's dramshop liability insurance carrier became insolvent while the lawsuit was pending. So the Illinois Insurance Guaranty Fund stepped in.

And that's where the dispute started. The Fund filed a motion seeking summary adjudication of the maximum exposure of the Fund. But how was the deduction calculated - subtract the settlements from the Dramshop Act cap? Or let the jury return a verdict against the defendant -- which was highly likely to be well in excess of the $130,000 statutory cap -- deduct the settlements from that much higher figure, and then reduce the recovery to the statutory cap? If the court picked the first alternative, the maximum exposure was likely to be relatively small, given that the recoveries to date had been $106,550 (making the Fund's maximum exposure about $24,000). But if the court picked the second alternative, the recovery would likely be the statutory cap, or something very close to it.

The result would have been relatively straightforward is the Guaranty Fund hadn't been involved; the routine calculation would be the second alternative - let the jury award what it wants, deduct the settlements and then cap the recovery. But the defendant in Rogers argued that a different result was required because the Fund was involved. The Circuit Court disagreed, and the Appellate Court affirmed.

Before the Supreme Court, the defendant is likely to argue that the Fund occupies a special position in Illinois law. It is not merely another insurer, but rather a recovery of last resort; such a rule is necessary, the defendant will likely argue, to protect the viability of the Fund. A claimant is required to exhaust "all coverage" before turning to the Fund for recovery, and unlike private insurers, the Fund's obligation must be reduced by the full policy limits, regardless of whether the plaintiff settles for less or does not pursue a claim.

On the other hand, the plaintiffs are likely to argue the policy implications of the defendant's preferred result. If the statutory cap is applied before any deductions for settlements, it is entirely possible that the establishment will be liable for little or nothing; the plaintiffs are likely to argue that this result is directly contrary to the Dramshop Act.

We expect a decision in Rogers within the next two to four months.