Federal Court of Appeals Rules That Expert Needed in SUV Rollover Case – Show v. Ford Motor Co.

In law, if you don’t agree with a lower court’s ruling, you have the option of appealing your case to a higher court. However, just because you file an appeal does not mean you will be happy with the outcome. In the product liability lawsuit of David Show, et al. v. Ford Motor Co., Nos. 10-2428 and 10-2637, the trial court had entered a summary judgment that effectively dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim. The plaintiffs appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which in turn declined to review the product liability lawsuit.

The lawsuit sprung from an Illinois rollover accident in which the two plaintiffs, David Show and Maria Federici, were injured. At the time of the auto accident, the two plaintiffs were riding in a 1993 Ford Explorer, which rolled over after being struck by another vehicle. The plaintiffs both suffered personal injuries as a result of the rollover accident and subsequently brought an Illinois product liability lawsuit against Ford Motor Company for its supposed negligence in designing its Ford Explorer.

The basis of the plaintiffs’ claim was that Ford had chosen to defectively design and produce their Explorer, making it an unsafe vehicle for consumers. In order to show that the SUV was unsafe, the plaintiffs offered up the fact that it had rolled over in their accident and was therefore unsafe. They testified that as consumers they would have expected the car to not rollover in an accident.

However, the problem with the plaintiffs’ case was that they failed to provide any expert testimony to support their claims. Instead, the plaintiffs argued that they could depend solely on the consumer-expectation test as a means of proving Ford’s negligence and liability. Under this test, a plaintiff is only required to show when used as intended, the product failed to perform as safely as a consumer would have reasonably expected it to, i.e., they would have expected the SUV to not rollover.

However, both the trial and appellate courts held that a higher degree of proof was needed – the plaintiffs needed to apply the risk-utility test in order to prove their defective-design claim against Ford Motor Co. The risk-utility test is meant to determine whether the benefits of a particular design element outweigh the potential dangers of that design. If the benefits outweigh the risks, then the design is considered to not be defective. However, if the design’s risks outweigh the benefits, and the manufacturer could have substituted a safer alternate design, then the design is defective.

The court not only ruled that the plaintiffs did not apply the risk-utility test when presenting their case against the defendant’s product, but that they would have needed to provide expert testimony in order to prove their defective design claims against Ford. When explaining why expert testimony is so important in design defect lawsuits, the appellate court stated, “Jurors own cars, but people own lots of products without being able to explain (or even understand) the principles behind their construction and operation.”
Therefore, an expert who understands the principles that go into a product’s production and operation is needed if one is to properly apply the risk-utility test. And while consumer expectations definitely play into the broader scope of the risk-utility test, they cannot be the sole means by which a party argues for or against a design defect – doing so requires an expert.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois automobile defect cases for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood, Blue Island, Northfield, Schiller Park, and Elmwood Park.

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