Auto Defect Case to be Reviewed by Illinios Supreme Court

The Illinois Supreme Court will hear an Illinois product defect case to determine whether to affirm or remand a $43 million jury verdict against Ford Motor Co. in Jablonski et al., etc. v. Ford Motor Company, No. 11096. The Illinois product liability lawsuit included claims that the auto manufacturer negligently installed a rear axle fuel tank, which caused injuries to the plaintiffs following a high-speed, rear-collision auto accident.

The Illinois Appellate Court has already affirmed the lower court’s ruling, but Ford Motor Co. brings its arguments before the Illinois Supreme Court in an attempt to reverse the trial court’s rulings and resulting product defect jury verdict. Jablonski was filed after the plaintiffs were involved in a rear-end auto accident where their 1993 Lincoln Town Car was struck by a Chevrolet Lumina at 60 mph. The force of the collision propelled a pipe wrench laying in plaintiffs’ trunk through the trunk’s walls and into the fuel tank, which resulted in a fire that left the husband dead and the wife severely burned.

The 1993 Lincoln Town car was one of the four vehicles, including one designed for police, that was built with a fuel tank behind the rear axle. Plaintiffs allege that Ford was not only negligent in locating the fuel tank in that position, but it also failed to guard against and warn of the dangers of locating the fuel tank behind the rear axle.

Rather than filing a strict liability lawsuit, the plaintiffs’ brought a negligent design claim against the car manufacturer. While strict liability and negligence claims both require the plaintiff to prove that there was a design defect, the negligence claim also requires that the manufacturer knowingly failed to exercise reasonable care. Because there is an additional burden of proof under manufacturer negligence claims most product liability lawsuits include strict liability, not negligence claims.

However, in Jablonski the plaintiffs’ were obviously able to prove their negligence claims against Ford Motor Co. and obtain a positive verdict that awarded $28 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages. Ford appealed the jury verdict, arguing that the court erred when it allowed plaintiff to introduce evidence to the jury regarding hundreds of prior fires occurring in Ford vehicles containing rear-axle fuel tanks, while denying Ford’s evidence that its vehicle met 2006 NHTSA safety standards. Furthermore, Ford argued that the trial court erred in submitting plaintiff’s negligent-design and punitive damages claims and by instructing the jury on those claims.

The Illinois Appellate Court rejected Ford’s argument that plaintiffs did not present sufficient evidence to submit their negligence claims to the jury. The court pointed out that the plaintiffs showed Ford’s own engineers were aware of the potential dangers and recommended changing the location of the fuel tank in future vehicles. “Thus, the plaintiff not only presented evidence of feasible alternative designs existing in the industry, but also presented evidence of a clear trend in the industry, including at Ford, to eliminate the aft-of-the-axle fuel tank design,” the Appellate Court said.

The case is set to appear before the Illinois Supreme Court who will examine the plaintiff’s negligence claims and determine whether the requirements placed on Ford are reasonable.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois product defect cases for over 30 years, serving those areas in and around Cook County, including Arlington Heights, Downers Grove, Oak Lawn, and Skokie.

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