Appellate Court Publishes Opinion Regarding the Use of Tools to Modify Product Causing Injury – Perez v. JLG

Manufacturers have an obligation to make their products safe for regular use. However, how far does this obligation extend? Are manufacturers required to make it overly difficult for consumers to modify their products? A recent Illinois Appellate Court decision examines to what extent manufacturers are liable for after-market modifications made to their products; Geronimo Perez v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., et al., Nos. 2-11-0382, 2-11-0486 cons (April 9, 2012).

In January 2008, Geronimo Perez was injured while using a scissor lift machine manufactured by JLG Industries. In his product liability lawsuit, Perez claimed that his injury could have been prevented if there had been a guardrail on the scissor lift machine. What is interesting about Perez is that JLG Industries had installed a guardrail when it designed its scissor lift; however, someone had removed the guardrail after the scissor lift machine left JLG’s factory.

So while JLG Industries had designed its scissor lift machine so that falls like Perez’s would be prevented, someone unconnected to the company had removed that safety feature. Yet Perez alleged that JLG was liable because it should have foreseen that someone would remove that guardrail, thereby causing his subsequent fall. JLG countered that it was not responsible for modifications others made to its product and that its scissor lift machine’s design was not defective.

The DuPage County judge reviewing Perez granted JLG’s motion for summary judgment, citing a ruling made by the Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court in DeArmond v. Hoover Ball and Bearing, 86 Ill.App.3d 1006 (1980). In DeArmond, the plaintiff was injured while working on a machine that molded plastic bottles. The worker alleged that his injury was a result of guard doors being removed and that the machine’s manufacturer was liable. However, the court ruled that since the guard doors could not easily be removed that the manufacturer could not have have reasonably foreseen that someone would remove the eight bolts and rod holding those doors in place. As a result of this decision, the general rule seemed to be that modifications to products are not foreseeable by the manufacturer if tools are required to make the changes.

However, in its review of Perez, the appellate court instead chose to rely on the First District Appellate Court’s decision in Davis v. Pak-Mor Manufacturing Co., 284 Ill.App.3d 214 (1996). Davis also involved claims that a manufacturer was responsible for later modifications made to its product and the injuries caused by those modifications. However, in Davis, the court held that using tools to remove a safety feature does not automatically exempt a manufacturer from product liability.

Davis was brought by the wife of a man killed when a garbage truck ran him over; allegedly his death was caused by changes to the garbage truck that allowed the garbage packing device to work while the truck was still in gear. In Davis, the court held that the manufacturer should have foreseen this modification because it only required the use of pliers and a screwdriver to manipulate the truck’s wires and override the safety feature.

Given the different standards applied by both courts, the appellate court in Perez held that there was still an issue of material fact to consider whether or not JLG was liable for the modifications made to its product. And since there was still an issue of material fact to consider, the trial judge should not have granted JLG’s motion for summary judgment. Perez was remanded to the trial court for further handling of the product defect lawsuit. However, JLG has appealed the Illinois Appellate Court’s decision to the Illinois Supreme Court in order to review the correct test regarding the removal of safety equipment. The plaintiff Perez is being represented by attorney Michael W. Rathsack of Chicago.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois product liability cases for more than 36 years for individuals and families in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Tinley Park, Lincolnshire, Vernon Hills, Hillside, Elmhurst, Lansing, Palos Heights, and Winfield.