Jury Instruction Is Harmless Error Unless Plaintiff Shows Verdict Is Unsustainable On All Other Defenses Presented

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Whirlpool Corporation (“Whirlpool”) requested an opinion from attorney William Rucker (“Rucker”) on whether certain products it imported would be subject to new duties imposed by the U.S. Department of Commerce.  Rucker responded that he believed the products were not subject to these duties and so Whirlpool continued to import them.  However, a shipment of the product was later tagged as subject to the new duties, forcing Whirlpool to pay duty deposits of 407% of their value.  Id. at ¶7.  Whirlpool retained new counsel and sued Rucker and his firm, Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP (together with Rucker, “the Defendants”), for legal malpractice.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Defendants.

Whirlpool appealed, arguing that the Trial Court made multiple errors, including giving a jury instruction on the “informed judgment” defense.  Id. at ¶49.  The Appellate Court affirmed.  With respect to the “informed judgment” defense, it explained that “[u]nder the two-issue rule, where the jury returns a general verdict, multiple claims or defenses were presented to the jury, and the challenging party did not request a special interrogatory that would test the basis of the jury’s verdict, the verdict will be upheld so long as there was sufficient evidence to support any one of the presented claims or defenses.”  Id. at ¶51.  In such a situation, the Appellate Court continued, “unless plaintiff can show that the jury’s verdict cannot be sustained on any of the other defenses presented to the jury, we must conclude that any error in giving the informed judgment defense instruction was harmless.”  Id.  Here, no special interrogatories were given to the jury that would reveal the basis of the verdict and Whirlpool made no arguments that the jury’s verdict could not be sustained on the other defenses presented.  Id. at ¶61.  As for the other errors alleged by Whirlpool, the Appellate Court held that it “need not address these issues” because “even if plaintiff is correct… they would not have affected the outcome of the trial because the jury’s verdict can be sustained on the unrelated grounds of general negligence, causation, and plaintiff’s contributory negligence.”  Id. at ¶66.

Whirlpool Corporation v. Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP & William Randolph Rucker, 2020 IL App (1st) 191042-U

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