Posted October 13, 2014 2:46 PM

Fatal crash brings suit against cellphone caller

By Marc Karlinsky
Law Bulletin staff writer

In the wake of a fatal downstate car accident, a woman’s estate is not only pursuing a wrongful-death lawsuit against the driver of the other car. It’s also going after the man on the other end of a cellphone call with that driver.

An attorney representing the estate in Ford County Circuit Court said it’s the first lawsuit of its kind in Illinois.

In a 26-page complaint, the estate alleged the caller knew the call’s recipient was driving and that it could provide a distraction from the road.

The incident took place last year on a stretch of road in Ford County north of Melvin, a town about 40 miles north of Champaign.

The complaint alleges Kitty Mullins was driving north across an intersection when she was struck and killed by Matthew Geerdes’ car, which was headed west.

She is survived by a husband and five children. One daughter, Hope Farney, was named as the estate’s independent administrator and is named as the plaintiff.

In a second amended complaint mailed to the circuit clerk Friday, Farney alleged Matthew Geerdes, a pastor for the University Lutheran Ministry of Bloomington-Normal and St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Roberts, was on the phone at the time of the accident with Larry Thorndyke, an employee of St. Paul’s.

The suit names both men and both churches as defendants.

Thorndyke was negligent in initiating a phone conversation when he knew or should have known Geerdes was driving, Farney alleges.

Thorndyke moved to dismiss the case, arguing the complaint failed to allege a recognizable duty against him and failed to allege the negligent conduct was a proximate cause of the accident.

In response, Farney contends the allegations meet standards for common-law negligence.

“While the [d]efendant was not at the scene of the collision, the proximity of the relationship between the [d]efendant and [p]laintiff is immaterial as duty attaches to remote and unknown people,” Farney’s response says.

Her response cites statistics showing nearly 6,000 car crashes in Illinois took place between 2008 and 2012 involving distracted drivers on phones. As such, an accident caused by a distracted driver is forseeable, Farney argues.

Sean J. Mussey, an attorney with the Law Offices of Michael J. Gravlin LLC, represents Farney.

He said the case is similar to one in New Jersey, where a woman was sued for texting a driver who was involved in an accident.

In that case, the New Jersey Appellate Court found the suit did not present enough evidence to impose a duty on the texter but found that the scenario is possible if the sender knows the recipient is driving.

“It’s just like if you’re a passenger in a car and cover the eyes of the person driving,” Mussey said.

Michael D. Ryan, a partner at Ryan, Benett & Radloff in Mattoon, said he sees distinctions between the New Jersey case and the current case in Illinois for several reasons, such as the fact Illinois didn’t have a hands-free calling law in effect until this year.

Farney is also represented by Michael J. Gravlin Jr. of the Law Offices of Michael J. Gravlin.

Geerdes is represented by Robert T. Varney, owner of Robert T. Varney & Associates in Bloomington. He could not be reached for comment.

University Lutheran Ministry of Bloomington-Normal is represented by Michael E. Raub of Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen P.C. in Urbana. He said the lawsuit is going to be “a hard sell” because the person making the call might be at home and not physically at the scene of the accident.

The case in the 11th Judicial Circuit Court is Hope Farney v. Matthew Geerdes, et al., 13 L 14.

 

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