Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Case of Trenton Booker

Trenton Booker was like a lot of 13-year old boys. On May 22nd he reportedly snuck out of his house so he could ride his bike with friends. On that night he was riding his bike down Ashland Avenue near its intersection with 81st Street on Chicago's South Side. As Trenton approached the intersection, he was struck by a Dodge Charger driven by an off-duty police officer. Witness reports state that the Dodge Charger never slowed down and struck Trenton with such force that it threw the boy over 50 feet in the air, coming to rest by a nearby gas station. Trenton was reportedly dead on impact. The Dodge Charger sped from the collision scene.

The off-duty police officer, Richard Bolling, has been charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, leaving the scene of an accident where a death or injury occurred ("hit-and-run"), driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street and transportation of alcohol.

At the criminal trial, Bolling will either plead not guilty and ask for a trial or accept a guilty plea. But what about in a civil case? What remedies are available to the family of Trenton?

The initial inquiry involves what insurance coverage is available to Trenton's family. In all likelihood Bolling had an automobile insurance policy as required under Illinois law. However, Illinois law only requires "minimum" automobile insurance in the amount of $20,000 per individual and $40,000 for an entire occurrence where more than one person may have been hurt. Insurance policies can run into millions of dollars, but policies with higher limits typically are those associated with commercial policies on delivery vehicles, company cars, and situations like that.

Beyond the available insurance coverage, Trenton's family may also attempt to proceed with a claim for punitive damages. Punitive damages are those beyond the pain and suffering of Trenton prior to death and the loss suffered by the family. Punitive damages are "punishment" for the actions of a defendant.

Section 2-604.1 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure provides that a plaintiff may request the judge, through a pre-trial motion, to allow them to seek punitive damages if there are "facts sufficient to support an award of punitive damages." The kind of facts the court looks for are those of reprehensible conduct above and beyond typical negligence when someone may have just made a mistake.

If the facts of this case as they have been reported are true, then this is a clear example of a case where punitive damages may be sought. The driver was allegedly drunk, speeding, and fled from the scene after striking a child riding his bike in the street. Insurance companies do not typically provide coverage for punitive damages so the individual defendant is usually personally responsible for satisfying any judgment that includes punitive damages.

By any estimation, it is unlikely that any settlement or verdict could even attempt to ease the pain to Trenton Booker's family. But fortunately Illinois law does provide that the family may recover for their loss, and have a chance of punishing behavior such as the behavior that has been reported in the news in this case.