10-14-11; The Supreme Court yields to good sense and reasonableness in overturning another Madison County attempt to expand the scope of liability product manufactures face

We here at KCA have been providing you with our case analyses in this update for quite a while now. You may have read in these pages that our State’s own Madison County has been described as a “judicial hellhole” and was very Plaintiff friendly. If you don’t recall, it’s the home of the original multi-billion dollar tobacco verdict. The Illinois Supreme Court is routinely very liberal, but Madison County is even more so. A recent decision by the Supreme Court of Illinois reversing a Madison County jury award in excess of $40 million confirmed Illinois is going to stick with the precedent on its books and not expand manufacturer liability in a few interesting ways the Plaintiff in that suit was trying to assert.

As a backdrop, we present a snapshot of the law in Illinois – the law for some time has been that manufacturers are not required to guard against every risk to the consumer. When a design defect is present at the time of sale, the manufacturer has a duty to take reasonable steps to warn at least the purchaser of the risk as soon as the manufacturer learns or should have learned of the risk created by its fault. (see Woodill v. Parke Davis & Co) That duty has not been expanded beyond the point of sale – and in fact, a manufacturer is under no duty to issue post-sale warnings or to retrofit its products to remedy defects first discovered after a product has left its control.” (see Modelski v. Navistar International Transportation Corp.) If a manufacturer, however, does warn consumers, or makes modifications to goods, they can be held liable if the warnings are insufficient or if the corrective measures are in themselves negligent. In Jablonski v. Ford Motor Company, decided last month, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned a $43 million judgment in a 5-0 vote, based in part on an expansion of the law argued at the lower court that would have expanded a manufactures liability beyond this point.

Jablonski was filed as a result of a rear-end car accident involving Dora Mae and John Jablonski, who in 2003 were driving their 1993 Lincoln Town Car when they were struck by another vehicle travelling in excess of 60 mph. The Jablonski’s were essentially stopped when hit, and the collision caused their rear end to crumple. It also propelled a pipe wrench in the trunk through the trunk wall and into the adjacent fuel tank. The punctured fuel tank caused the car to catch fire, leaving  Mr. Jablonski dead and his wife severely burned. The widow brought suit under a multitude of theories, and throughout the course of litigation, the theories of recovery continually evolved. Ultimately Plaintiffs received a $43 million award for what the trial court ruled was the auto manufacturer's negligence, as all potential strict liability claims had been dropped. The Appellate Court summarily affirmed and this appeal was taken the Supreme Court.

Of note were the two issues the reversal was based upon – failure to expand Illinois’s duty to warn to include post-sale duty, and an analysis of the “voluntary undertaking” doctrine. In regard to a post-sale duty to warn, Plaintiff argued for, and the jury was instructed in, a duty to warn of a product-related risk after the time of sale, whether or not the product is defective at the time of original sale, if a reasonable person in the seller’s position would provide a warning under the enumerated circumstances. This is a theory of law not in existence in Illinois, and the Supreme Court essentially said as much, also noting application of such a theory would require facts which were not presented to the jury before an award could be based on it, as even if this law were adopted, it would require more information as to what warning a reasonable person in the seller’s position would provide.

The other basis upon which the reversal was based was the voluntary undertaking doctrine. It is a somewhat intuitive doctrine, when a manufacturer (or reseller for that matter) undertakes, freely or for compensation, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other’s person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking. This duty is limited, however, to the extent of the undertaking. In Jablonski, Plaintiff argued since Ford had done some testing for police vehicles, which were of an almost exact same design, and recommended changing location of the fuel tank and providing guidance to officers regarding proper placement in the trunk to avoid similar fuel tank punctures, this duty extended to the common public to warn them in a similar fashion. The Supreme Court held the duty in this setting applied only to those persons warned – read, the police. Since the public was never warned about the potential fuel tank punctures, there was no duty stemming from the warning to the police. While somewhat convoluted, the theory is based in the fact that the duty from this undertaking stems from failing to perform the warnings or modifications in a reasonably safe manner – since no warnings or modifications were ever propounded to the public, there was no duty to the Jablonski’s which could be breached. In essence, a claim under this doctrine could only be brought by an officer who was warned about proper trunk usage and who was injured despite following Fords’ guidance regarding tools in the trunk.

This article was researched and written by Arik D. Hetue, J. D. who can be reached at ahetue@keefe-law.com.