Product Liability Case Reversed When Illinois Supreme Court Upholds Risk-Utility Design Test

The Illinois Supreme Court reversed a $27 million jury verdict award and ordered a new trial after applying the risk-utility test of Illinois product design liability in favor of the defendant. This is a new application of the risk-utility test, which typically falls in favor of the plaintiff.

Illinois’ strict design defect theory applies one of two tests to determine whether a product is unreasonably dangerous. The first test is the “consumer expectation” test, under which the plaintiff must show that the product is more unreasonably dangerous than a typical consumer would realize when purchasing it.

The other test is the “risk-utility”, or “risk-benefit” test. Under the risk-utility test the consumer must prove that the danger associated with a product outweighs the product’s benefits. Under the risk-utility design the product manufacturer may also prove that the product’s benefits outweigh the risk of danger inherent in the product’s design.

In Mikolajczyk v Ford Motor Co, 2008 W.L. 4603565 (Ill.Supp.Ct. 2008) , the Supreme Court applied the risk-utility test to determine whether the product was defective under Illinois law. In Mikolajczyk, the plaintiff died of injuries sustained when another vehicle crashed into the rear end of his Ford Escort. His widow brought a claim regarding the defective design of the driver’s seat against the Ford Motor Company and Mazda Motor Corporation.

At the jury trial, the defendant attempted to introduce a risk-utility test for the strict liability in the form of jury instructions advising the jury to consider the overall safety of the car seats when considering the risks. However, the court denied these arguments and instead instructed the jury that the definition of unreasonably dangerous was a product that was “unsafe when put to a use that is reasonably foreseeable considering the nature and function of the product.”
When asked to apply the consumer-expectation test the jury trial awarded the plaintiff $27 million. This verdict was upheld by the Illinois Appellate, but the amount awarded was reduced. Next the case went to the Illinois Supreme Court.

In Mikolajczyk, the Supreme Court ruled that the defendants should have been allowed to instruct the jury to consider the overall safety of the product and apply the utility-risk test. Although plaintiff choose to apply the consumer-expectation test, the defendant is not bound to follow the same test in their defense.

By ruling in this manner, the Illinois Supreme Court essentially adopted a hybrid of the risk-utility test found in § 2(b) of the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability. That section provides that the risk-utility balance is to be determined based on the consideration of a broad range of factors, including the magnitude and probability of the foreseeable risk of harm, the instructions and warning accompanying the product, and the nature and strength of the consumer expectations.

Furthermore, the Illinois Supreme Court opined that both consumer expectation tests and risk-utility tests have their place in design-defect cases, but it is up to each party to choose its own method of proof. Sufficient evidence must be presented by either party to implicate the risk-utility test, or the formulation under § 2(b) of the Restatement to be applied with the corresponding jury instructions.

Kreisman Law Offices has been practicing product liability law in Illinois and Chicago for over 30 years, in areas such as Naperville, Oak Park, Evanston, and Tinley Park.