December 05, 2011 Articles

Illinois Supreme Court Clarifies Duty Analysis in Negligent Product Design Cases

The key issue in a negligent design case is whether the manufacturer exercised reasonable care in designing the product

By Jason P. Eckerly

In the recent Illinois Supreme Court case Jablonski v. Ford Motor Co., 2011 IL 110,096, 955 N.E.2d 1138 (Ill. 2011), the court attempted to clarify what was slowly becoming a gray area: the duty analysis in a negligent product design case.

Factual Background

In 2003, John and Dora Jablonski were driving their 1993 Lincoln Town Car when they came to a complete stop in a construction zone. Another vehicle slammed into the rear of the Jablonskis’ Town Car, causing a large wrench in the trunk of the Town Car to penetrate the trunk and puncture the car’s fuel tank. As a result, the Town Car burst into flames, killing Mr. Jablonski and severely burning Mrs. Jablonski.

Mrs. Jablonski and the estate brought suit against Ford on theories of negligent design and willful and wanton conduct, specifically: failure to locate the fuel tank in an alternative location, failure to shield the tank from punctures by contents of the trunk, and failure to warn of the risk of contents of the trunk puncturing the fuel tank.

The case was presented to a jury, and much of the trial centered around whether the location of the fuel tank in the Town Car was a reasonably safe location for a fuel tank. At the close of the evidence, Ford moved for a directed verdict, which the trial court denied. The case went to the jury, and they returned a verdict in the plaintiffs' favor of $28 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages. Ford appealed to the court of appeals, which affirmed, and then to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Duty Analysis

The supreme court began by clarifying the duty analysis in negligent product design cases: "A product liability action asserting a claim based on negligence, such as negligent design, is based upon fundamental concepts of common law negligence." Id. at *13. A manufacturer has a non-delegable duty to design a reasonably safe product. The key issue in a negligent design case is whether the manufacturer exercised reasonable care in designing the product, meaning that while exercising ordinary care, the manufacturer should have foreseen that the design would have been hazardous to someone. To show foreseeability, a "plaintiff must show that the manufacturer knew or should have known of the risk posed by the product design at the time of the manufacture of the product." Id.

In determining whether Ford exercised reasonable care in designing a product, the court used a balancing test, which balanced the risks inherent in the product design with the utility or benefit derived from the product.

The court affirmed that the risk-utility test used in strict liability cases is the same test to be used in determining whether a manufacturer’s conduct is reasonable in a negligent design case. The court recognized that there are a number of factors that may be relevant to the balancing test, including "(1) the availability and feasibility of alternate designs at the time of the product’s manufacture; or (2) that the design used did not conform to the design standards in the industry, design guidelines provided by an authoritative voluntary organization, or design criteria set by legislation or governmental regulation." Id. at *14. Other factors include the utility of the product to the user and to the public as a whole; the safety aspects of the product, including the likelihood that it will cause injury and the probable seriousness of the injury; and the manufacturer’s ability to eliminate the unsafe character of the product without impairing its usefulness or making it too expensive to maintain its utility.

Industry Standards

The court went on to clarify that compliance with industry standards alone is not dispositive of a manufacturer's duty in a negligent design case. Rather, evidence of compliance with industry standards is one of a number of factors to be considered, as it is clearly relevant in determining whether a manufacturer exercised reasonable care. The court noted that the converse also holds true—that evidence of a violation of industry standards "is considered probative of, but not conclusive on, the questions of negligent design. The standard remains whether the conduct was reasonable under the circumstances." Id. at *16.

Initially, the court looked to the industry standards and found that Ford exceeded the industry standards set for fuel system integrity. As a result, the plaintiffs were then required to present evidence that despite its compliance with industry standards, Ford was otherwise "unreasonable because the foreseeable risk posed by the . . . design of the fuel tank at the time of the manufacture outweighed its utility." Id.

The court then went on to apply the risk-utility balancing test to Ford. The burden was on the plaintiffs to show 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." Id.

Alternative Design

Plaintiffs argued that a safer alternative tank design was feasible. Ford presented evidence that the tank was safer than alternative designs in side-impact collisions. In addition, moving the fuel tank would have meant a complete redesign of the Town Car and would have introduced other risks of equal or greater magnitude. Furthermore, Ford could have added a shield near the fuel tank; however, there was no evidence that this would have provided any additional level of protection. Thus, Ford's decision on the placement of the fuel tank was not unreasonable, and the plaintiffs were required to show more than the possibility of an alternative design.

Other Incidents

The plaintiffs next pointed to 416 similar incidents to demonstrate that the tank design was unsafe. However, on closer inspection, there was no evidence of any other incidents in which the contents of the trunk had punctured the fuel tank in a Ford vehicle or in other manufacturers' vehicles equipped with similarly designed fuel tanks.

Reversal of the Trial Court

The Illinois Supreme Court balanced the foreseeable risks and utility factors to determine whether Ford's conduct was reasonable in not warning about the risks of items in the trunk possibly puncturing the fuel tank. Taking the above into consideration, the court reversed the trial court’s judgments against Ford.

This case is important because the court made progress in attempting to clarify the role that industry standards play in negligent product design cases and in the application of the utility-risk balancing test. Although the court clarified that compliance with industry standards is not dispositive, the court seems to indicate that compliance with industry standards is the most important factor to be considered in the utility-risk balancing test.

Although the duty analysis in a negligent product design case is, by its very nature, difficult to define, the court made significant strides in attempting to clarify the analysis for future cases.

Keywords: Jablonski v. Ford Motor Co., Illinois Supreme Court, duty analysis, utility-risk balancing test


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