THE ILLINOIS SUPREME COURT EXAMINES THE RISK-UTILITY TEST IN DESIGN DEFECT CASES


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A current Illinois Supreme Court ruling of major significance examines the risk-energy test as a technique of proof in product liability situations premised on a design-defect concept. The holding in the instance, which has a rejection of a post-sale duty to warn, merits the one-of-a-kind attention of the product licapacity defense bar.

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Jablonski v. Ford Motor Co., 2011 Ill. LEXIS 1136, chose by the Illinois Supreme Court on Sept. 22, 2011, involved the collision of a 1993 Lincoln Town Car in which the plaintiff, Dora Mae Jablonski, and her husband also, John L. Jablonski, Sr., were riding on July 7, 2003, in Madison County, Illinois. When their auto involved a stop in a highmethod building zone, it was struck from behind by a automobile traveling at a high rate. A large pipe wrench in the trunk of the Jablonski’s Tvery own Car penetrated the trunk, puncturing the earlier of the car’s fuel tank. The tank had been placed in between the trunk and the vehicle’s rear axle as component of a style that Ford presented in 1979, dubbed the “Panther platcreate.” The puncture of the fuel tank resulted in the Town Car to burst into flames, resulting in significant burns and irreversible disfigurement to Mrs. Jablonski and the fatality of her husband also.

A. Procedural History.

Mrs. Jablonski and also her kid, John Jr., as unique administrator and also individual representative of his deceased father’s estate, sued Ford Motor Company type of in the Circuit Court of Madison County under theories of strict tort licapability and negligence, alleging design defects connected through the area of the Town Car’s fuel tank. In enhancement to compensatory dameras, punitive damperiods were also sought under a concept of willful and wanton misconduct. Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed that Ford was liable for injuries to Mrs. Jablonski and also the fatality of her husband also by reasons of: (1) Ford’s style of the automobile in which the fuel tank was positioned behind the rear axle (as opposed to above or in front of the axle); (2) its faitempt to shield the fuel tank to stop penetration of the tank by objects in the trunk of the vehicle in the time of a collision; and (3) for faiattract to warn the purchasers of its cars of the hazard of trunk contents puncturing the fuel tank.

At the conclusion of the 11-day trial, following the close of the proof, the plaintiffs dismissed, through prejudice, their strict licapability claim versus Ford (for reasons not especially articulated in the Supreme Court’s opinion), and also the situation was submitted to the jury on theories of style negligence and also willful and wanton misconduct. Over Ford’s objection, the plaintiffs were also enabled to instruct the jury on another case of negligence not formerly pled, i.e. the breach of an alleged post-sale duty to warn. Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed that the auto manufacturer failed to warn or inform the Jablonskis of a specific remedial meacertain that had actually been instituted by Ford succeeding to the manufacture of the Jablonskis’ Tvery own Car, however before their accident. The remedial measure in question consisted Ford’s 2002 breakthrough of an “Upgrade Kit,” which consisted of shields designed to be set up between the trunk and the fuel tank of specific police vehicles (specifically the Ford Crvery own Victoria Police Interceptor). The shields were intended to defend the fuel tank from puncture by objects throughout high-rate rear-finish collisions. In conjunction through miscellaneous police agencies and also the National Highmethod Transportation Safety Administration, Ford had actually likewise occurred a drop-in trunk liner for police vehicles along with instructions regarding exactly how items must be stored in the trunk (laterally quite than longitudinally) in order to decrease the danger of gas-tank puncture in the event of a rear-finish collision. Ford’s faitempt to advise consumers of the presence and also availability of these remedial procedures (although designed particularly for use in Ford’s Crvery own Victoria police vehicles) was the crux of the plaintiffs’ post-sale duty to warn instance.

The Madiboy County jury reverted a verdict versus Ford for $28 million in compensatory damperiods and also a second $15 million in punitive damages. Following the trial courtdenial Ford’s movement for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or alternatively, for a brand-new trial, Ford appealed the ruling, and also the 5th District Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the plaintiffs’ judgment. A petition for leave to appeal was granted by the Illinois Supreme Court, which likewise acceptedamici curiae briefs from the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association on befifty percent of the plaintiffs, and from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Caterpillar, Inc., on befifty percent of the defendant.

The Supreme Court’s opinion sets forth a thorough recitation of the proof presented at trial, and the objections thereto, consisting of those relating to the design attributes of the Lincoln Tvery own Car and also various other models making use of the Panther platdevelop design; the admission of other events and also mishaps including fuel-fed fires following rear-finish collisions; alleged alternate feasible designs for the fuel tank mounting location; and also compliance via applicable market standards and also various other matters beyond the scope of this article. Instead it will certainly focus upon four essential points that follow the Court’s basic discussion of the legal principles applicable to Illinois product licapacity instances premised upon allegations of negligent design.

B. The Supreme Court’s Analysis.

Before addressing the issues increased by the defense for consideration, the court undertook a evaluation of the general ethics applicable to a product liability situation based upon negligent design. The court held that the crucial question of whether the manufacturer exercised reasonable care in the architecture of the product “encompasses a balancing of the dangers inherent in the product style with the utility or advantage derived from the product . . .” so that “hen the threat of injury outweighs the energy of a specific architecture, there is a determicountry that the manufacturer exposed the customer to a greater danger of risk than is acceptable to culture.” 2011 Ill. LEXIS 1136 at pp.36-37.

The court detailed that the exact same factors that are appropriate to a risk-energy test analysis in a product licapability case established upon strict tort licapacity are likewise pertinent to a design-defect instance based upon allegations of the product manufacturer’s negligence. Such factors, illustrative however not exhaustive in the words of the court, incorporate consideration of different, feasible deindicators in existence at the moment of the subject product’s manufacture; conformance (or non-conformance) of the architecture to applicable market criteria or governpsychological regulations; the in its entirety energy of the product both to its user and to the public, examined in the light of the likelihood of injury and the probable seriousness thereof; and also the capacity of the manufacturer to style out the unsafe characteristics of the product without impairing its usefulness or making it cost-prohibitive to the consumer. The court must first balance such factors to recognize if the case is submissible to a jury for consideration of these and also other pertinent determinants in the risk-utility test evaluation.

The Supreme Court, having actually established that the risk-utility test is equally applicable to negligence-based style defect claims as it is to strict licapability actions of that nature, then turned to the 4 significant contentions raised by the defendant for evaluation.

1. Compliance through industry requirements.

Ford argued, based mainly on the plurality opinion of the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision in Blue v. Environmental Engineering, Inc., 215 Ill.2d 78, 828 N.E.2d 1128 (2005), that its untested compliance through applicable market criteria was dispositive of the negligent style insurance claim, since such a insurance claim needs proof that the “defendant deviated from the traditional of treatment that other manufacturers in the sector followed . . . .” Blue, 215 Ill.2d at 96, 828 N.E.2d at 1141.

Despite Blue’s supposed suggestion that conformance through industry requirements is dispositive of the issue of negligent architecture, the Supreme Court shelp that such is not the regulation, either in Illinois or somewhere else. Instead, the manufacturer’s compliance via industry standards is simply one among numerous factors to be thought about in determining whether reasonable care was worked out in the style of the product. Relying mainly on its 2007 decision in Calles v. Scripto-Tokai Corp., 224 Ill.2d 247, 864 N.E.2d 249 (2007), the Supreme Court sassist that just as compliance through market standards will certainly not shield a manufacturer from a negligent architecture claim, neither will certainly proof of a violation of industry standards be deemed determinative of the manufacturer’s liability. Instead, compliance through, or deviation from, applicable market criteria is probative of, but not conclusive of, the concern of the manufacturer’s due treatment.

2. Application of the risk-energy test.

Applying the risk-energy test analysis to the facts of the situation, the Supreme Court shelp that it was incumbent upon the plaintiffs to present proof that the defendant’s conduct in creating the placement of the fuel tank in the Lincoln Tvery own Car was unreasonable, by demonstrating that the foreseeable dangers of the embraced design outweighed its connected benefits and utility. The court said such proof cannot be satisfied by an alternative design, which the evidence verified would introduce other threats of an equal or greater magnitude than the challenged design.

The danger of fuel-tank puncture in cars using the Panther platform style was displayed at trial to be statistically remote and also, despite the trial court’s admission of various other cases of fuel-fed fires following rear-end collisions, none were presented to have actually been brought about by a gas tank being punctured by a projectile in the trunk of the auto. Evidence of the shields designed by the defendant for a different version of auto did not present the shield to have been compatible with the Jablonski’s vehicle.

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After considering the foreseeable threats and also their remoteness, as compared to the energy and benefits of the challenged style, the court concluded that there was inadequate evidence to submit the instance to the jury on the plaintiff’s allegations of negligence concerning the location of gas tank, its absence of shielding, or the defendant’s faitempt to warn, as of the date of the car’s manufacture, of the asserted risk of fuel-tank puncture.