November 17, 2011

The Illinois Supreme Court issued a decision in September 2011 that is very favorable to defendants in product liability cases brought in Illinois courts. In Jablonski v. Ford Motor Co., the plaintiff and her husband were driving on an expressway in southern Illinois when they came to a complete stop in a construction zone. A vehicle then slammed into the rear of their car at a high rate of speed. As a result of the crash, a large pipe wrench in the trunk of the Jablonskis' car punctured the back of the fuel tank. The vehicle burst into flames, causing severe burns to the plaintiff and killing her husband.

The plaintiff filed suit against Ford Motor Co., seeking damages for the injuries she sustained and for the death of her husband. The plaintiff alleged that the design of the vehicle that the Jablonskis were driving was negligent because it did not protect against the possibility that contents in the trunk could puncture the fuel tank during a rear-end collision. The jury awarded the plaintiff $28 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages as a result of Ford's willful and wanton conduct. The Fifth District Appellate Court affirmed the jury's verdict.

However, the Illinois Supreme Court vacated the judgment, finding that the plaintiff had not introduced evidence to support a claim of negligent design. The Supreme Court initially found that "[a] manufacturer is not required to guard against every conceivable risk, regardless of the degree of harm." Instead, the plaintiff was required to prove that "Ford's conduct in designing the fuel system was unreasonable by presenting evidence that the risk was foreseeable and that the risks inherent in the product design outweighed the benefits."

The Supreme Court held that the plaintiff failed to present such evidence. Rather, the evidence presented at trial established that Ford complied with or exceeded the industry standard set for fuel system integrity. It was further demonstrated that other vehicles on the market utilized the same design, and that moving the fuel tank (as the plaintiff suggested) would have introduced other risks of equal or greater magnitude. Importantly, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff was required to "show more than the technical possibility of an alternative design."

The Supreme Court also found it particularly telling that no Ford vehicle with the same fuel tank design had ever experienced a situation where the contents of the trunk punctured the fuel tank. Likewise, the plaintiff could not identify a similar occurrence in any other manufacturer's vehicle that employed the same fuel tank design. The Supreme Court thus found that the risk identified by the plaintiff was "remote" and concluded that "after balancing the foreseeable risks and utility factors, plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence from which a jury could conclude that at the time of manufacture, Ford's conduct was unreasonable." The Jablonski case represents an important product liability decision that sets forth a roadmap for manufacturers to defend against negligent design cases in Illinois. Without question, this pro-manufacturer outcome will have longstanding importance to businesses operating in Illinois.

This article contains material of general interest and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. Under applicable rules of professional conduct, this content may be regarded as attorney advertising.