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$13.8 Million Verdict In Wrongful Death Of Model Who Drowned In The Chicago River


On May 12, 2011, Irma Sabanovic was on her way to pick up her boyfriend from his job as a DJ at the popular Chicago nightclub, Exit.  Somehow she became lost and wound up on Goose Island, an artificial island located in the Chicago River.  Goose Island is a heavy industrial area that is confusing to navigate.  Irma found her way onto W. Blackhawk Street.  While travelling westbound on Blackhawk her car left the road and plunged into the inky darkness of the North Branch of the Chicago River.  For nine days the Chicago Police searched for Irma, treating the case as a missing person’s investigation.  Eventually her body was discovered inside her upside down vehicle submerged in 12 feet of water at the bottom of the river off of the end of Blackhawk St.  Police canvassing the area were able to locate a closed circuit surveillance video that captured her vehicle driving off of the end of the road and into the river at 2:00 am on the morning of May 12, 2011.

Irma Sabanovic was a 25 year old fashion model who was studying theater at Wilbur Wright College.  She was a beautiful, sweet, fun-loving woman with a wickedly smart sense of humor.  Her family, unable to make sense of her needless and tragic death, hired Goldberg & Goldberg to investigate the circumstances and determine why there were no signs, barricades and warnings at the end of the road.  A wrongful death and survival lawsuit was filed at the end of May 2011 against the City of Chicago.

For years the City claimed that there were no warning signs at the end of the road, even though a similar tragic accident had occurred 17 years earlier on the opposite bank of the Chicago River.  After that accident, the City erected barricades on the West bank of the river but claimed to have done nothing on the East bank.  Or so we were told, until the City of Chicago discovered the proof of their own negligence in late 2015 when they “found” work orders which showed that stop signs and a dead end sign had been placed in 1993 and removed, for an unexplained reason, sometime thereafter.  It was also determined that a 2000 lb concrete Jersey Barrier had been placed on the road near the east bank of the river but that the barricade did not extend across the entire length of the roadway.  Had concrete barriers been deployed across the entirety of Blackhawk St. this tragedy would have certainly been avoided.

In spite of overwhelming evidence of their own negligence, the City of Chicago refused to take responsibility for their negligence in causing Irma Sabanovic’s death.  In February of 2016 this case was tried before a jury of 12 in the Circuit Court of Cook County.  After hearing the evidence, the jury returned a verdict for $13.8 million.  The City of Chicago had previously offered $1 million to settle the case.  The City withdrew the offer mid way through the trial.

The roadway configuration on Goose Island created a deceptive visual cue which confused Irma while she drove along the roadway.  This deceptive cue caused her to believe that the roadway continued beyond the road end.  There was no warning sign that the river was present just beyond the end of the road.  The road itself is 27 feet above the river and the lights and traffic across the river are visible to drivers approaching the road end.  In all likelihood this confusing visual condition enticed Irma into believing that the road continued forward.  Absent the presence of warnings, signs and or barriers, she had no opportunity to learn of the hidden danger that lurked beyond the end of the road.

The jury heard testimony from experts on human factors engineering, respiratory physiology, toxicology, forensic science, pathology, grief and loss and accident reconstruction.  After hearing all of the evidence they determined that Irma was only 10% responsible for her own death.  The net jury award was $12,501,000.  The City of Chicago has indicated that they intend to appeal the verdict.

Goldberg & Goldberg is extremely proud of the tenacious advocacy demonstrated by their team of lawyers during the entirety of this case.  The Sabanovic family is grateful to the jury for their careful consideration of the evidence and the compassion that was shown to their family.



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