Product Liability Litigation Avoided by Cook County Car Dealership: Illinois Appellate Court Clarifies Product Defect Statute

Defendant Mancari’s Chrysler Plymouth dealership in Cook County lucked out with an ideological “get out of trial free” card in a product liability case involving a car sold at his dealership. Murphy v. Mancari’s Chrysler Plymouth, Inc. 2008 WL 927727.

The Illinois Appellate Court’s clarification of section 2-261 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure makes it easier for non-manufacturers to be dismissed from strict product liability cases in Illinois. The relevant section states that

“A court shall not enter a dismissal order relative to any certifying defendant or defendants other than the manufacturer . . . where the plaintiff can show . . . That the defendant had actual knowledge of the defect in the product which caused the injury, death or damage”. 735 ILCS 5/2-621(c)(2).

So if plaintiff could prove that the defendant knew about the product defect then the defendant could not be dismissed from case. However, Murphy takes this interpretation a step further to determine whether it is enough that defendant just knows about the alleged defect or whether they need to know that the defect makes the product unreasonably dangerous, too?
In Murphy, Plaintiff Joseph Murphy claimed that he was paralyzed in a rollover accident because his Sebring lacked a roll bar safety device. He alleged that Mancari’s Chrysler Plymouth sold him a Sebring that was unreasonably dangerous because it lacked a roll bar. Mancari confirmed that they knew that the vehicle did not have a roll bar, but still claimed that this did not make them directly responsible.

The Appellate Court was careful not to extend the interpretation of the statute beyond its written language because the statute deals with fault in a strict liability analysis. Typically a strict liability case focuses on whether or not the product in question was dangerous and did in fact cause the damages in question. Whereas in negligence cases the focus is on whether the defendant contributed to the damages in question. Issues of negligence do not enter into strict liability cases.

In order to better interpret the statute it is important to understand its intent. The purpose of section 2-261(c)(2) was to provide an avenue for non-manufacturing defendants in a product liability case to avoid expensive litigation when they had done nothing wrong as to putting a defective product in the marketplace. And so the statute introduced an element of negligence in order to determine which non-manufacturing defendants were still liable and which could be dismissed.

In Murphy, plaintiffs alleged that the Sebring was in an ‘unreasonably dangerous condition’, citing the weak windshield and roof of the vehicle along with the lack of a roll bar or other device to protect against serious injury. They claimed that Mancari’s knew about these defects prior to selling the car to Murphy and did not warn them of such defects. Mancari moved to be dismiss from the case, arguing that Daimler-Chrysler manufactured and controlled the design of the car and that they could not be held responsible for defects in its design.

Based on its interpretation of the statute the appellate court determined that just proving that the defendant knew about the alleged defect was not enough. In addition plaintiff needed to prove that the defendant knew that the alleged defect resulted in an unreasonably dangerous product and therefore had an obligation not to distribute it.

In Murphy, while the plaintiff was able to prove that Mancari knew about the lack of roll bars, they were not able to prove that Mancari knew that this apparent hazard resulted in a dangerous product. Therefore Mancari, the non-manufacturing defendant, was dismissed from the case. Murphy will be able to pursue a product liability case against the manufacturer in his case, but not against the distributor.

Kreisman Law Offices is a Chicago law firm with a long history of handling product liability cases for Cook County and its surround areas, including Evanston, Lisle, Bridgeview, and Oak Park.

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