Mikolajczyk v. Ford Motor Co.

Citation901 N.E.2d 329,231 Ill.2d 516
Decision Date17 October 2008
Docket NumberNo. 104983.,104983.
PartiesConnie MIKOLAJCZYK, Indiv. and as Special Adm'r of the Estate of James Mikolajczyk, Deceased, Appellee, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY et al., Appellants.
CourtSupreme Court of Illinois
901 N.E.2d 329
231 Ill.2d 516
Connie MIKOLAJCZYK, Indiv. and as Special Adm'r of the Estate of James Mikolajczyk, Deceased, Appellee,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY et al., Appellants.
No. 104983.
Supreme Court of Illinois.
October 17, 2008.
Dissenting Opinion on Denial of Rehearing December 18, 2008.

[901 N.E.2d 332]

Winston & Strawn LLP, and Donohue Brown Mathewson & Smyth LLC, Chicago (James R. Thompson, Bruce R. Braun, Scott P. Glauberman, Pei Yuan Chung, Karen Kies DeGrand, Mark H. Boyle and William P. Ferranti, of counsel), for appellants Ford Motor Company and Mazda Motor Corporation.

Bruce R. Pfaff and Michael T. Gill, of Pfaff & Gill, Ltd., Chicago, for appellee.

Jeffrey S. Hebrank, Misty L. Wuebbels, of Hepler, Broom, MacDonald, Hebrank, True & Noce, LLC, Edwardsville, for amicus curiae Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel.

James A. Spizzo, Thomas A. Baker and Michael J. Waters, of Vedder Price Kaufman & Kammholz, P.C., Chicago, for amici curiae Illinois Manufacturers' Association and National Association of Manufacturers.

Stephanie A. Scharf and Mary Ann Becker, of Schoeman Updike Kaufman & Scharf, Chicago, for amicus curiae Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc.

Jeffrey W. Sarles, Erika Z. Jones and Adam C. Sloane, of Mayer Brown LLP, Chicago (John T. Whatley and Nancy Elizabeth Bell, Washington, D.C., of counsel), for amicus curiae Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Inc.

James P. Costello, of Costello, McMahon & Burke, Ltd., Chicago, for amicus curiae Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.

OPINION

Justice GARMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion:


James Mikolajczyk died of injuries sustained when the Ford Escort he was driving was struck from behind by another vehicle. His widow, as special administrator of his estate, sued the other driver, claiming negligence, and Ford Motor Company and Mazda Motor Corporation, claiming defective design of the driver's seat. Summary judgment was entered against the other driver. The claims against the other two defendants proceeded to a jury trial in the circuit court of Cook County. The jury found defendants liable and awarded plaintiff $2 million in damages for loss of money, goods, and services, and $25 million for loss of society.

The appellate court affirmed in part and reversed in part. Mikolajczyk v. Ford Motor Co., 369 Ill.App.3d 78, 307 Ill.Dec. 201, 859 N.E.2d 201 (2006). This court denied defendants' petition for leave to appeal, but remanded the matter to the appellate court with instructions to reconsider in light of Calles v. Scripto-Tokai Corp., 224 Ill.2d 247, 309 Ill.Dec. 383, 864 N.E.2d 249 (2007). On remand, the appellate court again affirmed in part and reversed in part, finding the damages awarded for loss of society to be excessive and remanding to the circuit court for a hearing on the proper amount of remittitur. 374 Ill.App.3d 646, 312 Ill.Dec. 441, 870 N.E.2d 885. This court granted defendants' petition for leave to appeal pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 315 (210 Ill.2d R.

901 N.E.2d 333

315) to determine whether the trial court erred by instructing the jury on the consumer-expectation test and rejecting defendants' tendered instruction on the risk-utility test for defective design. In addition, we allowed plaintiff's petition to seek cross-relief on the damages issue.

We have permitted the Products Liability Advisory Council, Inc., the Illinois Manufacturers' Association and the National Association of Manufacturers, the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel, and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Inc., to file briefs amici curiae on behalf of the defendants. We have also permitted the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association to file a brief amicus curiae on behalf of the plaintiff. 210 Ill.2d R. 345.

BACKGROUND

On February 4, 2000, William Timberlake shared two pints of gin with a friend before getting behind the wheel of his Cadillac. He was traveling approximately 60 miles per hour when he smashed into the rear of a 1996 Ford Escort that was stopped at a red light. The driver of the Escort, James Mikolajczyk, suffered severe, irreversible brain trauma and spent several days on life support before his death. His daughter, Elizabeth, then aged 10, who was asleep in the backseat at the time of the accident, suffered two broken legs. James was also survived by his wife, Connie, and son, Adam, then aged 14.

Plaintiff's negligence suit against defendant Timberlake resulted in the entry of summary judgment. Plaintiff's lawsuit against defendants Ford and Mazda alleged strict product liability premised on defective design of the driver's seat of the Escort. Specifically, she claimed that as a result of the defective design of the seat, it collapsed when the car was struck from behind, causing James to be propelled rearward and to strike his head on the backseat of the car. Plaintiff further alleged that the design of the seat was unreasonably dangerous and that the design defect proximately caused James's death. The Escort was manufactured by defendant Ford. The seat was designed by defendant Mazda; Ford had the authority to approve or disapprove the design.

The trial testimony is summarized in detail in the appellate court opinion. 374 Ill.App.3d at 650-53, 312 Ill.Dec. 441, 870 N.E.2d 885. For purposes of this appeal, it is necessary to note only that the evidence included testimony by expert witnesses for both parties regarding the risks and benefits posed by the "yielding" seat (referred to as the CT20 design), its compliance with federal safety requirements, the availability and feasibility of a rigid seat, the risks and benefits posed by the rigid seat design, and the seat designs employed in other makes and models of cars manufactured in 1996.

The trial court instructed the jury using plaintiff's tendered versions of Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions, Civil, Nos. 400.01.01 (setting out the plaintiff's claim of defective design and the defendants' denials), 400.02 (setting out the plaintiff's burden of proof and the elements of a claim for strict liability), and 400.06 (defining the expression "unreasonably dangerous"). Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions, Civil, Nos. 400.01.01, 400.02, 400.06 (2006) (hereinafter IPI Civil (2006)). The trial court rejected defendants' tendered nonpattern jury instructions that would have specifically instructed the jury to consider the "overall safety" of the design, whether the foreseeable risks of harm of the design outweighed its benefits, and whether the adoption of a feasible alternative design would have avoided or reduced the risks. Defendants argued unsuccessfully that this instruction should be given either instead of or in addition to instruction 400.06.

901 N.E.2d 334

The jury answered the following special interrogatory in the affirmative: "Was the driver's seat of the Mikolajczyk car in an unreasonably dangerous condition that was a proximate cause of James Mikolajczyk's death?" The jury then returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and awarded $2 million in damages for loss of money, goods, and services and $25 million for loss of society. The jury assigned 60% of fault to Timberlake and 40% to Ford and Mazda.

The appellate court rejected defendants' argument that the jury was improperly instructed, but reversed the judgment in part, finding the $25 million award for loss of society excessive. 374 Ill.App.3d at 674, 312 Ill.Dec. 441, 870 N.E.2d 885.

Before this court, defendants argue that the appellate court "turned back the evolution of Illinois law" by applying the "outdated" consumer-expectation test rather than the risk-utility test that, they assert, is now the exclusive test for defective design of a complex product. In the alternative, they argue that even if this court has not expressly adopted risk-utility as the exclusive test in such cases, it should do so now. In effect, they argue that the trial court applied the wrong substantive law to plaintiff's claim, raising this issue in the context of the trial court's refusal to give their non-IPI jury instruction. Defendants also argue that a new trial must be granted in any event because the jury instructions that were given did not correspond to the evidence presented at trial.

Plaintiff argues that the appellate court erred by finding the $25 million award for loss of society excessive and remanding for a new hearing on defendants' motion for remittitur.

ANALYSIS

Neither the first edition (1961) nor the second edition (1971) of the Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions, Civil, contained instructions dealing with claims of strict product liability. The 400.00 series of instructions, which deals with strict product liability, was adopted in 1977 in a supplement to the second edition. See IPI Civil (2006), at xiii-xiv (foreword to the third edition). The third edition, which was adopted in 1992, retained instruction 400.06 without change, as have subsequent editions in 1995, 1997, 2000, and 2006. Pattern jury instruction 400.06 defines the term "unreasonably dangerous" in the context of a strict product liability claim:

"When I use the expression `unreasonably dangerous' in these instructions, I mean unsafe when put to a use that is reasonably foreseeable considering the nature and function of the [product]." IPI Civil (2006) No. 400.06.

The comment following this instruction observes that the "expression `unreasonably dangerous' first found acceptance in Illinois in Suvada v. White Motor Co., 32 Ill.2d 612, 210 N.E.2d 182 (1965)."1 IPI Civil (2006) No. 400.06, Comment, at 562. In Suvada, this court recognized a cause of action for strict liability in tort against the manufacturer of a product whose defective condition made it unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer. This court noted that its conclusion "coincide[d] with the position taken in section 402A of the American Law Institute's revised Restatement of the Law of Torts," which had recently been approved. Suvada, 32...

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