Illinois Product Liability Claim Underscores the Importance of Filing a Well-Drafted Complaint

In the recently-filed Illinois product liability case of Padilla v. Hunter Douglas Window Coverings, Inc., No. 09-cv-1222 (Jan 19, 2010), the Northern District of Illinois Court reviewed the Plaintiff’s Complaint to determine whether the plaintiff’s complaint set out sufficient claims of liability against the three defendants. While the court ultimately decided that there were sufficient claims for potential negligence and liability on behalf of the defendants, if it had ruled that the plaintiff had not established a sufficient claim then the Illinois product liability claim would have been dismissed.

The review of the complaint in this lawsuit was prompted by the defense filing a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Under the Federal Rule 12(b)(6), the Court examines the Complaint to ensure it satisfies the following requirements:

• provides a clear and concise claim showing that the plaintiffs are entitled to receive relief from the defendants and that the defendants had fair notice of the underlying problem;
• a set of facts that are sufficient to support its arguments of liability on behalf of the defendant(s).

The Illinois product liability lawsuit was filed after the plaintiff’s toddler died after becoming entangled in a metal cord at his home’s mini blinds. The complaint was direct towards product’s manufacturer, Hunter Douglas Window Covering, and two industry trade groups involved in reviewing the safety of the mini blinds in question. Defendant WCMA is a window covering industry trade group responsible for the development and implementation of manufacturing standards. Defendant WCSC is a coalition of window covering manufacturers set up to correct the strangulation hazard posed by window coverings, such as those involved in Padilla.

The complaint in Padilla alleged that both WCMA and WCSC were liable for the Illinois product defect because they voluntarily undertook to correct the known hazard after it was labelled a dangerous condition by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In order to avoid a mandatory recall of the window blinds, the WCMA established the WCSC for the express purpose of heading up a voluntary corrective action plan.

Together the WCMA and the WCSC initiated a recall and retrofit plan that was meant to lessen the likelihood of strangulation. The industry groups were to provide retrofit kits to anyone who had purchased mini blinds similar to the ones in the Padilla complaint while also warning consumers of the strangulation risk the blinds posed to young children and infants.

Typically in an Illinois product defect case the theory of liability revolves around the manufacturer and distributor of the product. However, in Padilla, the plaintiff sought to also hold the industry groups liable for the product defect. Therefore, when evaluating the validity of the plaintiff’s claims, the court needed to review the Restatement (Second) of Torts, 324A, which provides:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things, is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if

a) his failure to exercise reasonable care increases the risk of harm,
(b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person, or
(c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person upon the undertaking.

The plaintiff used Section (b) of the Restatement Section 324A to argue that WCMA and WCSC had incurred liability to the third-party consumer when it instituted the recall and retrofit plan in order to reduce the strangulation hazard, a duty which would normally have rested with the manufacturer.

In response to plaintiff’s allegations, the industry groups referenced the Illinois decision of Bailey v. Edward Hines Lumber Co., 308 Ill.App.3d 58 (1999) to infer that prior Illinois courts had not imposed liability on trade organizations under the theory of voluntary undertaking. However, Bailey involved a very particular set of facts that are significantly different than those in Padilla. While in Padilla the organizations took steps to reduce the blind’s hazards, in Bailey the trade association had only served in an advisory capacity.

When reviewing the facts in Padilla, the Illinois court found no indication that the trade associates were simply issuing non-mandatory guidelines regarding the safety of the window coverings. Instead, the allegations inferred that the trade associations instituted a complete recall and retrofit program in order to make the blinds at issue safer.

This fact flushes more with the Illinois case of Frye v. Medicare-Glaser Corp., 153 Ill.2d 26 (1992), where the court held that the type of duty imposed on a defendant under a voluntary undertaking theory is limited to the extent of the undertaking. In Padilla, the defendant associations undertaking was related to the product defect referenced in the complaint.

Therefore, when ruling on defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment the court held that there was not enough evidence to suggest that the two associations did not owe any duty to the plaintiff. The court determined that at this point in the case it would be premature to bar the plaintiff from bringing a lawsuit under a theory of liability under Section 324A.

This decision does not have any bearing on whether or not the defendants are actually liable for the death of the plaintiff’s son, but just means that the court felt that the plaintiff had established sufficient evidence to suggest that the defendants might be liable for the Illinois product’s defects. Therefore, the plaintiff is allowed to present his case and the lawsuit continues.

However, if the plaintiff had failed to lay out a clear case in his complaint then the outcome might have been different, which reinforces the importance of drafting a clear and concise complaint. A failure to do so might result in your claims being dismissed.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois product defect cases for over 30 years, serving those areas in and around Cook County, including Chicago, Naperville, Schaumburg, and Deer Park.

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