Illinois Justices Pare Down Law Targeting Drug Dealers

CHICAGO (CN) – Can any dealer in a local market be sued by someone who is harmed by another person’s use of illegal drugs? Not without proof they were the one who sold them, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled.

In a 4-2 decision Thursday, the state’s highest court upheld the trial court’s finding that the area-liability provision of the Drug Dealer Liability Act violates substantive due process because it presumes that a plaintiff’s injury was caused by a defendant simply because they are involved in the illegal drug market.

“It does this by empowering the plaintiff to arbitrarily select the most convenient defendant from within a specified geographic region, whether or not that defendant in any way contributed to the drug use at issue,” Justice Robert Thomas wrote for the majority.

The ruling stems from a 2012 case filed by the family of Michael Neuman, who died from an overdose, seeking damages from the owner of the place he died, the estate of Kevin Jatczak. The family says Jatczak sold him the drugs, although they can’t prove it.

The court heard oral arguments last September from the family’s attorney Nick Nepustil of Benjamin & Shapiro and the estate’s attorney Kyle McConnell of Meagher & Geer.

While Justice Thomas acknowledged the importance of the law, which was created to compensate those affected by the illegal drug trade, he reiterated that a dealer cannot be blamed unless there is evidence.

“Section 25(b)(2) not only allows but actually invites a person injured by another person’s illegal drug use to recover substantial economic damages from persons having no connection to or nexus with that drug use. It is difficult to conceive of a civil liability statute more unreasonable or arbitrary than this,” the majority opinion states.

Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier and Justices Rita Garman, Anne Burke and Scott Neville concurred with Thomas.

Justice Mary Jane Theis, joined by Justice Thomas Kilbride, dissented, arguing the majority misses the link between the purpose of the law and the area-liability provision.

“Dealers at all levels together have created a demand for illegal drugs, as well as a supply chain to serve that demand. In light of that reality, the legislature sought to undermine the entire illegal drug market by adopting a new form of liability—market liability,” Theis wrote.

She continued, “Persons who have entered the illegal drug market in a community, who participate in and build that market and ultimately benefit from it, should bear the costs of the harm caused by that market to that community.”

Thursday’s ruling also rejected the trial court’s reading of the direct-liability provision of the Drug Dealer Liability Act. This part of the law allows a person to sue someone who knowingly distributed or participated in the distribution of an illegal drug that was consumed by the user.

The trial court found that Neuman’s family could not bring a claim under that provision because they hadn’t proved Jatczak knowingly provided the drugs that killed him.

The high court’s majority ruled that the direct-liability provision does not require a plaintiff to prove that the defendant was involved in the distribution of the drug that caused the overdose, only that they sold drugs taken by the user.

Justice Thomas wrote that unlike the area-liability provision, the direct-liability provision “imposes liability only in cases in which the parties have an existing and proven transactional connection. Nothing about this is arbitrary, and nothing about it allows a plaintiff to shop from a pool of strangers and choose whom from among them to hold responsible for the claimed injuries.”

Justices Burke and Neville dissented, calling the direct-liability provision potentially more extreme because a drug dealer could, for example, sell someone weed without incident, and be held equally liable as a different drug dealer who sold that same person heroin that caused their overdose.

Burke wrote that the direct-liability provision “requires no proof of geographical or temporal proximity to the illegal drug use, nor does it require that the defendant’s participation in the chain of distribution involve, or be connected with, the same type of illegal drug actually used by the individual drug user.”

The attorney for Jatczak’s estate, McConnell, applauded the ruling in a statement Friday.

“We are pleased the court agreed that the legislature exceeded its constitutional authority when it eliminated any requirement that a plaintiff demonstrate a causal nexus between a defendant and the plaintiff’s alleged injuries. We are confident the facts of this tragic incident will fully vindicate our client’s deceased son upon remand,” said McConnell. 

The attorney for the family, Nepustil, also expressed satisfaction with the ruling in a statement Friday.

“We are proud that the court’s decision will allow victims to hold drug dealers responsible for the tremendous damage they inflict on our society. We look forward to presenting our case to the jury so that Noah Wingert may finally obtain justice,” Nepustil said.

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