Did two South Side Chicago businessmen violate a court order when they continued inviting patrons into their nightclub, where 21 people were trampled to death trying to escape a brawl in 2003?
Or were errors made in the court order itself, making it ambiguous as to which parts of the club the owners actually needed to close?
Lawyers representing the E2 club owners - Dwain Kyles and Calvin Hollins - and a lawyer representing Chicago argued answers to those questions and their implications before the Illinois Supreme Court Wednesday.
Both the respondents' lawyers claimed the 2002 housing court order to close part of their clients' second-floor club at 2347 S. Michigan Ave. for structural reasons was too vague. However, Kerrie Laytin representing the city argued Kyles and Hollins at least partly understood the court order and willfully violated it anyway.
"Any confusion about the language there may have been should not excuse their noncompliance with that order," Laytin said.
Both Kyles and Hollins were acquitted of two-year prison sentences in 2011 when the 1st District Appellate Court reversed a lower court's decision, ruling the original court order was not clear when the two were convicted at the trial court level and that the building code violations had nothing to do with the tragedy the following year.
"Simply, under the facts of this case, we disagree that the formal order was as clear and unambiguous as the city maintains the law requires," Justice Michael J. Murphy wrote in the unanimous appellate court ruling.
The uncertainty was over whether the court order mandated the entire second floor of the building be closed or just the mezzanine level with VIP skyboxes suspended over the dance floor below. Both areas were open when the tragedy occurred.
Cook County public defender Vicki Rogers, representing Hollins, said there were conflicting versions of the court order.
"When you have two interpretations, it is unclear," she said. "The city never said this was a problem until after the tragic accident in 2003."
On the other hand, Laytin argued that regardless of the interpretation adopted by the club owners, they were aware of some restriction and violated it anyway.
"In this case, under both versions of the order, including respondents' own version, they understood that the order was not to occupy the mezzanine at the very least, they admit," she said. "Under their own reading of the order they violated the court's order."
Laytin also argued whether or not the club owners understood the order correctly is a matter of fact best decided by a jury and not by the appellate court.
"There was ample evidence before the jury, and there was ample evidence from which an appellate court could conclude from that particular evidence that respondents willfully violated a building court order and therefore the jury's verdict should have been upheld," she said.
Christopher Carmichael, representing Kyles, thought the appellate court's involvement was appropriate.
"It's not a rubber stamp," he said of the trial court's ruling. "The evidence has to be reviewed and the appellate court does have to conduct some sort of review to look at the overall sufficiency of the evidence. Otherwise the appellate court would just simply affirm any jury verdict."
The case is People ex rel. City of Chicago v. Le Mirage Inc., et al. No. 113482.