Articles Posted in Product Liability

While not every civil lawsuit requires a party to hire an expert, there are some instances where an expert’s opinion and testimony are vital to the case’s outcome. For example, if a plaintiff is making medical malpractice claims against a doctor or hospital, he or she will likely hire a medical expert to help support those claims. Likewise, in a product liability lawsuit, a party would generally need to hire some sort of expert to help prove that there was in fact a design or manufacturing defect. The vital nature of these experts’ testimony means that if for some reason those experts’ opinions are barred, the plaintiff will have an extremely difficult time proving the defendant’s negligence.

This is exactly what happened in the product liability lawsuit of Raymond Bielskis v. Louisville Ladder, Inc., No. 10-1194 (November 18, 2011). Bielskis filed a lawsuit against Louisville Ladder in which he claimed that its scaffolding design was defective and caused his work injury. In order to prove his claims, Bielskis’s attorneys had hired an engineering expert. After the trial court barred the engineering expert’s testimony, Bielskis filed an appeal in which he asked the court to reinstate his expert’s testimony.

Bielskis arose out of a fall Bielskis had while using a scaffold constructed by Louisville Ladder. Bielskis had originally purchased the scaffold in 1997 while working as an acoustical ceiling carpenter for R.G. Construction. During that time, Bielskis was responsible for providing the equipment and scaffolding for most of his jobs. However, in 2001, Bielskis began working for International Decorators, who generally supplied its workers with scaffolding equipment. As a result, Bielskis rarely used his Louisville Ladder scaffold after switching employers in 2001.

Then in 2005, Bielskis decided to use his Louisville Ladder scaffold on a job. Bielskis inspected the scaffold’s condition before using it; however, not noting any problems, Bielskis determined it was safe to use. But when he placed his weight onto one of the scaffold’s caster stems, the scaffold broke and collapsed. Bielskis fell and injured himself; that scaffolding injury is the subject of the current lawsuit.

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The Illinois Appellate Court recently ruled on a spoliation claim in a product liability lawsuit arising out of a 2004 car accident. The trial court had ruled that the insurer for the defendant vehicle salvage company did not have to contribute to any settlement that might arise out the salvage company’s inappropriate destruction of the relevant vehicle. However, the appellate court reversed this ruling and found that the salvage company’s insurance policy did in fact cover any claims arising out of spoliation of evidence. As a result of the appellate court’s decision, the defendant’s insurance company will now have to pay any reasonable damages arising out of the spoliation claim. Universal Underwriters Insurance Company v. LKQ Smart Parts, Inc., et al., No. 1-10-1723 (December 16, 2011).

The product liability lawsuit was based on a 2004 SUV rollover accident. Michael Widawski’s Nissan Pathfinder SUV rolled over, ejecting Monika Gramacki, its only passenger, from the vehicle as it rolled over. Gramacki died and her family brought a product liability lawsuit against Nissan for an alleged defect in the Pathfinder’s rear door.

The main piece of evidence in a product defect claim is the alleged damaged product, which in this case would Widawski’s Nissan Pathfinder. It is not enough for a party to simply allege that a product is defective; it must also be examined by experts to determine the source of the defect and whether that defect caused harm to the party. However, in the present case, no experts were able to examine Widawski’s vehicle because it was destroyed before they could do so.

Following the rollover accident, Widawski’s insurer, Farmers Insurance, handled the preservation of the Pathfinder. Farmers hired LKQ Smart Parts, Inc., a vehicle salvage and storage firm, to store the damaged Nissan and keep it in its current condition. However, LKQ failed to follow these instructions and somehow ended up destroying the Nissan Pathfinder shortly after it arrived. And with its destruction went Gramacki’s family’s hope of a fair and successful product defect claim against Nissan.

In order to rectify this dilemma, Gramacki’s father filed two lawsuits: the first was a product liability lawsuit against Nissan for the allegedly faulty door latch, the second was a spoliation of evidence claim against Farmers for the destroyed Pathfinder. In its claim against Farmers, Gramacki alleged that the “destruction of the subject Nissan Pathfinder deprived Plaintiff of the key piece of evidence necessary to prove an otherwise valid product liability/negligence lawsuit” against Nissan. Farmers then filed a third party lawsuit against LKQ for its role in destroying the Pathfinder.

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Back in November Volkswagen began notifying its customers that it would be voluntarily recalling numerous of its diesel models for faulty fuel injectors. The car manufacturer estimates that this recall could affect more than 168,000 vehicles. While Volkswagen’s website has more information on the specific models the Volkswagen recall effects, they include:

• Volkswagen Golf models manufactured between 2010 and 2011,
• Volkswagen Jetta models manufactured between 2009 and 2012, and
• some Audi 3 models manufactured between 2010 and 2012.

Of the above models, only those vehicles containing the 2.0L TDI® Clean Diesel engine are included in the recall. According to Volkswagen, there is a possibility that certain vibrations will cause a fuel line crack in the engine, which could then cause a fuel leak. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) warns that fuel leaks could lead to car fires, Volkswagen stated that it is not aware of any accidents or injuries caused by fuel line cracks in its diesel engines.

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A Chicago jury entered a $3 million jury verdict against a forklift manufacturer in an Illinois product liability lawsuit. The Chicago lawsuit arose out of a work injury involving 35 year-old Keith Price and a forklift designed and manufactured by Nacco Materials Handling Group, Inc. As a result of the Chicago work injury, Price was left with an amputated right leg and was unable to work for over five years. Keith Price v. Nacco Materials Handling Group, Inc., Voss Equipment, Inc., 06 L 12915.

The work injury occurred in February 2005 at a Chicago plant of ICI Uniqema, where Price was employed as a forklift operator. On the date of the work injury, Price was using a forklift to load a bag of spent nickel into a nearby hopper. However, as Price attempted to the bag into the hopper, it became caught on another bag. Price then needed to use a chain to readjust the position of the spent nickel bag. These chains were still attached when Price lifted the forks above the bag, at which point the forklift tipped over onto its side.

While Price was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the forklift accident, the seat itself was not properly attached to the forklift. As a result, the seat Price was sitting on rolled forward as the forklift moved. Price’s legs did not remain inside the vehicle and were crushed underneath the forklift. The weight of the large machine caused severe crushing injuries to his right leg, necessitating a below the knee amputation. In addition, Price sustained facial fractures to his jaw and lost four of his teeth.

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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.

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An Illinois Supreme Court ruling in a product liability lawsuit confirms that manufacturers are not required to guard against every risk to the consumer. The verdict in Dora Mae Jablonski v. Ford Motor Company, No. 110096, reversed a $43 million judgment in a 5-0 vote.

Jablonski was filed as a result of a rear-end car accident involving Dora Mae and John Jablonski. The couple was traveling in their 1993 Lincoln Town Car when they were struck by a Chevrolet Lumina that was traveling at 60 mph. The impact of the collision was such that it propelled a pipe wrench laying in the truck of the Jablonski’s vehicle through the trunk walls and into the nearby fuel tank. The punctured fuel tank caused the car to catch fire, leaving John Jablonski dead and Dora Mae severely burned.

Dora Mae and her son brought a product liability lawsuit against Ford Motor Company, alleging that it had negligently designed a defective and dangerous fuel tank system in its Lincoln Town Car. According to the plaintiffs’ theory of liability, the design of the Town Car’s rear fuel tank system left it susceptible to puncture or being damaged during a rear-end collision.

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A Central Illinois product liability lawsuit springing from a construction site injury returned the highest verdict in Tazewell County history. The Illinois jury awarded $13.5 million to the twenty-some year-old plaintiff who suffered a traumatic leg amputation; Justin Stone v. MiTek Industries and Central Illinois Truss, Inc., 10th Judicial Circuit, Tazewell County, Illinois (2011).

At the time of his work injury, 19 year-old Dustin Stone was working on a machine building roof trusses, or roof rafters, which are the triangle supports used to build roofs in homes. The roof truss machine consisted of several different work tables spread out over the length of the 100 ft. long machine. Stone was adding support to the wood trusses by hammering metal plates into the various truss joints.

Stone was standing between two opposite-facing machine tables when another truss operator drove a crane gantry toward the area where Stone was working. Protocol requires the gantry operator to first make sure the aisles are clear of workers; however, this was obviously not done on the date of Stone’s construction site injury. The gantry pinned Stone against a metal rail, crushing his left femur so severely that he required an above the knee amputation of his left leg.

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Legal venue is an important issue in many personal injury lawsuits, especially when the different states have different laws. In the product liability lawsuit of Joseph Murphy v. Mancari’s Chrysler Plymouth, Inc., No. 1-10-2178 (March 31, 2011), the Illinois Appellate Court sought to answer the question of whether Michigan law or Illinois law governed the case regarding issues of liability and damages.

The car accident at issue in Murphy occurred in Michigan. However, the plaintiff driver and the defendant car dealership where the plaintiff bought his car both were located in Illinois. The court then had to decide where the personal injury lawsuit should be heard – in Michigan, where the accident occurred, or in Illinois, where the plaintiff driver lived and worked.

Where the lawsuit was filed, or “choice-of-law,” would be critical to the eventual outcome of Murphy because of the major differences in Michigan and Illinois law. When deciding product liability issues, Illinois law applies a strict liability rule, whereas Michigan law applies a pure negligence standard. This means that Illinois defendants cannot effectively argue that they were unaware of the risk of the design defect, whereas this could be a successful defense in Michigan where the standard of care is set by similar manufacturers. In addition, Michigan imposes a $500,000 cap on non-economic damages in any product liability lawsuits, whereas Illinois has no such cap on damages.

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Federal preemption has long been a hot button issue in pharmaceutical drug cases, with consumer advocates arguing that drug companies should be held to the sometimes higher state standards. However, the U.S. Supreme Court appears to have reversed the federal preemption stance it took in Wyeth v. Levine. In Wyeth, the Court held that the negligence claim against the pharmaceutical company was not preempted by federal regulations and that the drug company was liable for its failure to provide adequate warning of its drug’s dangers.

However, in Pliva v. Mensing, No. 09-993, the Supreme Court ruled that a pharmaceutical manufacturer could not be sued under state law for failing to warn consumers about its drug’s risks. This decision seems to go against the Court’s ruling in Wyeth just two years ago; both lawsuits deal with federal preemption issues and involve states setting higher safety regulations than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Yet in Wyeth, the Court held the drug company responsible, while in Pliva, the Court ruled the pharmaceutical lawsuit was barred under federal preemption.

Yet on closer inspection, there appear to be some key differences between the facts surrounding the drug warning labels in Wyeth and Pliva. The main issue in both the Wyeth and the Pliva pharmaceutical cases involved an FDA regulation referred to as “changes being effected” (CBE). Under the CBE regulation, a drug manufacturer may modify its warning label without prior FDA approval if the modifications will improve the drug’s safety. Under CBE regulations, the FDA approval comes after the warning changes, not before; however, the assumption is that the warning changes in such matters are so important to consumer safety that the FDA will eventually approve those changes.

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Jeep Grand Cherokees might face a recall due to a product defect that causes the increased risk for fuel fires following rear-end collisions. The auto recall would affect 1993 to 2004 Grand Cherokee models; however, Chrysler denies the need for a Jeep recall and the National HIghway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has not yet instituted one. Yet there are at least different three crash tests showing that Grand Cherokees are more likely to catch on fire following rear end collisions that similar SUVs manufactured during the same time period.

The various crash tests were conducted by Karco Engineering and The Federal Outdoor Impact Laboratory; Karco has previously performed crash testing for the NHTSA. One test conducted on 1995, 1996, and 1999 Grand Cherokees resulted in significant gasoline leaks following rear-impact crashes. These gasoline leaks not only put the Jeep passengers at risk, but could also pose a fire threat to the occupants of the striking vehicle.

Likewise, another investigation of Grand Cherokeesfrom 1993-2004 was conducted because of over 254 deaths resulting from “172 fatal fire crashes” involving those Grand Cherokees models. The majority of these investigations are focusing on the Grand Cherokee because of similar results showing that the Grand Cherokee’s fuel system is much more likely to pose a fire threat than those used in similar vehicles. For example, comparable Ford Explorer models were much less likely to catch fire following a rear-end collision; in crash tests, Ford Explorers’ fuel system typically remained intact following these collisions.

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