Supreme Court Summaries

Opinions filed October 18, 2012


 

 

 

 

Lawlor v. North American Corporation of Illinois, 2012 IL 112530

 

Appellate citation: 409 Ill. App. 3d 149.

 

      JUSTICE THEIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

      Justices Freeman, Thomas, Garman, Karmeier, and Burke concurred in the judgment and opinion.

      Chief Justice Kilbride concurred in part and dissented in part, with opinion.

 

      This tort litigation has been through a trial in the circuit court of Cook County. The plaintiff, Kathleen Lawlor, claimed that her former employer, North American, had committed the tort of intrusion upon seclusion. Defendant North American counterclaimed that she had breached her employee’s fiduciary duty of loyalty.

      Beginning in 1998, Lawlor worked in North American’s graphic services group and primarily sold customized corporate-branded promotional items, with her role being to generate business. In 2005, she began working for a competitor that sold similar promotional items. North American’s corporate attorney was asked to investigate whether she had violated a noncompetition agreement, and he assigned a vice president to serve as a contact person. A private investigating firm was retained and given Lawlor’s birth date, address, home and cell phone numbers, and social security number. This investigation firm asked another detective agency to use the information to obtain personal phone records, which were ultimately forwarded back to North American so that it could inquire as to whether any of the numbers belonged to its customers. Lawlor’s tort claim alleged a “pretexting scheme” in which someone pretended to be her in order to obtain her private phone records without her permission. North American counterclaimed that she had breached her fiduciary duty of loyalty by attempting to direct business to a competitor while in its employ.

      A jury awarded Lawlor $65,000 in compensatory damages and $1.75 million in punitive damages. The trial court heard North American’s claim contemporaneously as a bench proceeding and awarded it $78,781 in compensatory damages and $551,467 in punitive damages. The circuit court also remitted the jury’s punitive damage award to Lawlor to $659,000. In the appellate court, however, Lawlor’s $1.75 million punitive damage awarded was reinstated.

      In this decision, the Illinois Supreme Court recognized the tort of intrusion upon seclusion, as the vast majority of other jurisdictions and the Illinois Appellate Court itself have done. It also held, as had the appellate court, that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that North American was vicariously liable for the tortious conduct of the investigators. As to the punitive damage award to Lawlor, however, the supreme court held not only that it should not be reinstated, but that it should be reduced further to the same level as Lawlor’s compensatory award, or $65,000, in view of the limited nature of the harm done and the vicarious nature of the liability.

      As to North American’s claim of breach of fiduciary duty, the appellate court had reversed the trial court’s finding in North American’s favor, holding that it was against the manifest weight of the evidence. With this conclusion, the supreme court agreed, stating that the evidence was speculative.