Illinois Supreme Court to Decide Interplay Between Dram Shop Act and Insurance Guaranty Fund Act

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In the final days of the Illinois Supreme Court's recently concluded May term, the Court allowed petitions for leave to appeal in five new civil cases. Today, we begin our detailed previews of those cases, discussing the underlying facts and lower court holdings.

First up is Rogers v. Imeri from the Fifth District. The plaintiffs' son was killed in a drunk driving accident. The plaintiffs sued the bar which allegedly served the drunk driver, alleging claims under the Dramshop Act, 235 ILCS 5/6-21. The plaintiffs received $26,550 from the driver's liability insurance policy and an additional $80,000 from their own policy.

While the matter was pending, the defendant's dramshop liability insurer was declared insolvent and liquidated; as a result, the Illinois Insurance Guaranty Fund took over the defense of the litigation.

The defendant filed a motion for summary adjudication of liability arguing the following theory: maximum liability under the Dramshop Act was $130,338.51. The plaintiffs had already received $106,550. Therefore, since the Insurance Guaranty Fund was entitled to a setoff for insurance payments from other sources, the plaintiffs' maximum possible recovery was the difference between those two sums.

The Circuit Court denied the motion, but agreed to certify a question: in a case involving the Insurance Guaranty Fund, if the jury returns a verdict in excess of the statutory maximum, is the setoff for other recoveries made from the verdict, or from the statutory maximum recovery under the Dramshop Act?

The answer depends on construing two different statutes simultaneously. The Dramshop Act provides that a jury should determine damages without worrying about the statutory limit.

On the other hand, under the Insurance Guaranty Fund Act, a claimant must "exhaust all coverage provided by any other insurance policy . . . if the claim under such policy arises from the same facts, injury, or loss that gave rise to the covered claim against the Fund." 215 ILCS 5/546(a). "[T]he Fund's obligation" is reduced by the amount recovered.

As the Fifth District observed, the answer to the certified question was likely to make a significant difference when the case was ultimately tried. Given that the deceased son of the plaintiffs was only eighteen when he was killed, it seemed likely that a verdict would be in excess of the statutory cap.

The defendant's problem, according to the Fifth Defendant, was that nothing in the Insurance Guaranty Fund Act altered the way that damages are calculated in the routine case where the Fund is not involved. Therefore, the Court held, the reduction for "other insurance" recoveries in the Insurance Guaranty Fund Act should be applied to the jury's verdict, and then reduced to the statutory maximum.

Rogers will likely be decided sometime in the first half of 2014.