The Minefield of Appellate Procedure: The Necessity of Post-Trial Motions Following Jury Trials in Illinois
The Illinois Code of Civil Procedure sets out strict rules for filing post-trial motions in jury trials, stating: “Relief desired after trial in jury cases,” including a new trial, “must be brought in a single post-trial motion.” 735 ILCS 5/2-1202(b) (emphasis added). Section 2-1202(e) specifies what happens if a party in a jury case fails to file a post-trial motion: “Any party who fails to seek a new trial in his or her post-trial motion, either conditionally or unconditionally, as herein provided, waives the right to apply for a new trial, except in cases in which the jury has failed to reach a verdict.”
The appellate courts have carved out one narrow exception to this rule – the grant of a motion for directed verdict. Where a motion for directed verdict disposes of the entire case, no post-trial motion is required because in granting a directed verdict, the trial judge “has removed the case from the realm of the rules relating to jury cases and the rules applicable to bench trials [in which no post-trial motion is required] should apply.” Keen v. Davis, 38 Ill. 2d 280, 281-282 (1967).
What happens, though, when a directed verdict is granted on one claim and the remaining claims are decided by the jury? Is a post-trial motion required in order to secure a new trial on all claims? In Crim v Dietrich, 2020 IL 124318, the Illinois Supreme Court answered this question, and the answer is “yes.”
In Crim, plaintiffs filed a medical malpractice action against the defendant obstetrician, asserting two claims: lack of informed consent and professional negligence. The matter proceeded to a jury trial. Following the close of plaintiffs’ case in chief, defendant moved for a directed verdict on the informed consent claim and the motion was granted. The trial continued on the professional negligence claim and the jury reached a verdict for defendant. After the circuit court entered judgment on the jury’s verdict, plaintiffs did not file a post-trial motion and instead filed a notice of appeal.
On appeal, plaintiffs argued only that the circuit court erred in granting defendants’ motion for directed verdict on the informed consent claim. The appellate court agreed with plaintiffs and reversed the order. In so doing, the appellate court entered the following general mandate: “…the order on appeal from the circuit court be REVERSED and the cause be remanded to the Circuit Court for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, Adams County, for such other proceedings as required by order of this court.” Id., ¶ 11.
Upon remand, the parties disagreed on what issues and facts could be retried. Defendant filed a motion in limine to exclude the presentation of any evidence relating to the professional negligence claim on the ground that the new trial should be conducted solely on the issue of informed consent because plaintiffs had appealed only the directed verdict on the informed consent claim. Plaintiffs contended that they were entitled to a new trial on both claims because the appellate court issued a general mandate that reversed the circuit court’s judgment in its entirety and did not specifically limit the issues the new trial could address. Id., ¶¶ 12-13. Following a hearing, the circuit court denied defendants’ motion in limine and, pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 308, permitted defendants to seek a permissive interlocutory appeal on the question of whether the appellate court’s remand required a new trial on both claims or on the informed consent claim only. The appellate court granted defendants’ application for interlocutory appeal and found that a new trial on both claims was required.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court agreed with defendants that the only claim to be retried was the informed consent claim. Because the jury made a factual determination on the issue of defendants’ professional negligence and the circuit court entered judgment based on that determination, plaintiffs were required to file a post-trial motion requesting a new trial on that claim in order to secure a new trial on that claim and they did not do so. The Supreme Court based its decision on the plain language of section 2-1202(b), set out above, and the policy reasons behind the requirement that a litigant file a post-trial motion following a jury case:
“[T]his Court has long favored the correction of errors at the circuit court level.” The post-trial motion thus allows “circuit court judges – those most familiar with the evidence and the witnesses – an opportunity to review their ruling and decide if a new trial or a judgment notwithstanding the verdict is appropriate.” Id., ¶ 34.
The post-trial motion “allows a reviewing court to ascertain from the record whether the circuit court was afforded an adequate opportunity to reassess any allegedly erroneous rulings that affected the case, including the jury’s verdict.” Id., ¶ 34.
“[R]equiring the litigants to specify the grounds in support of their contentions in a section 2-1202 motion prevents the litigant from stating mere general objections or, as in this case, subsequently raising on appeal arguments which the circuit court judge was never given an opportunity to consider, i.e., whether a partial directed verdict materially altered the tenor of the remaining trial.” Id., ¶ 34.
Finally, “a post-trial motion eliminates uncertainty on appeal as to whether the jury’s verdict is at dispute and allows an opposing party the opportunity to respond.” Id., ¶ 34.
Based on all of the foregoing, the Supreme Court concluded: “The plain language of the statute and case law interpreting section 2-1202 requires a litigant to file a post-trial motion in order to challenge the jury’s verdict even when the circuit court enters a partial directed verdict as to other issues in the case. The failure by plaintiffs to file a post-trial motion challenging the jury’s verdict deprived the circuit court of an opportunity to correct any trial errors involving the jury’s verdict and undermined any notion of fairness to defendant on appeal.” Id., ¶ 35.
As the Illinois Appellate Court observed 20 years ago, “For the trial advocate, appellate jurisdiction is akin to strolling through a minefield.” Physicians Insurance Exchange v. Jennings, 316 Ill. App. 3d 443, 446 (1st Dist. 2000). Crim demonstrates that the same is true of appellate procedure and that this minefield is best traveled by dedicated appellate practitioners. The post-trial motion is required to seek a new trial whenever a jury decides any part of a case, and the failure to file it severely restricts the scope of appellate review.