Illinois Product Liability Verdict of $27 Million Affirmed and Reversed

An Illinois product liability verdict against Ford Motor and Mazda Motors for defective design of driver’s seat was affirmed, but the damage award of $27 million was reduced by an appellate court in Chicago on Nov. 22, 2006. On Feb. 4, 2000, decedent was a driver stopped at stoplight when he was rear ended by a drunk driver. On impact decedent’s seat flattened backwards and he was ejected toward the rear of the car causing injuries that led to his death three days later.

Decedent’s estate filed a product liability lawsuit in Chicago alleging that driver’s seat was defectively designed with inadequate strength making it unreasonably dangerous. The driver’s seat was co-designed by Ford and Mazda and was a “yielding seat” meaning that when force applied it yielded in the direction of the force. This “yielding seat” met federal safety standards. However, plaintiff’s expert testified that compliance with federal safety standards does not make a seat safe. Expert testimony revealed that a “rigid seat” transfers the energy forward in a rear end collision.

Estate expert witnesses testified the a “rigid seat” was feasible and would have protected decedent from his fatal injuries. Specifically, experts opined that risk of severe to fatal injuries was 10 to 25 times greater with a “yielding seat.”

An issue on appeal was whether a plaintiff may prove a strict liability design defect by either the consumer expectation test or the risk-utility test. Ford and Mazda maintain that the Illinois Supreme Court adopted the risk-utility test as the exclusive test for design defects in product liability actions in Blue v. Environmental Engineering, 215 Ill. 2d 78, 828 N.E. 2d 1128 (2005). Plaintiff argued that any discussion in Blue that the exclusive test for design defects in products liability actions is the risk-utility test was dicta.

Illinois strict liability design law is outlined in this interesting opinion. Ultimately, the appellate court sided with plaintiff and stated that product liability actions alleging design defects may be proven by either the consumer expectation test or the risk-utility test, and that Blue did not change existing Illinois law. The court affirmed the jury’s verdict for plaintiff, but ordered a remittitur of the damages awarded.

The jury awarded $2 million for loss of goods, money and services and $25 million for loss of society and sexual relations. Decedent was a 46 yr. old man and left surviving a wife and two children 10 and 14 years old. Ford and Mazda contended that the jury’s award of $25 million for loss of society was arbitrary and excessive. Plaintiff urged that the $25 million award should not be compared to other cases as it is not authorized under Illinois case law.

After reviewing the Illinois case law regarding excessive damages, the Appellate Court stated:
.we cannot allow the $25 million loss of society award to stand because it exceeds fair and reasonable compensation and shocks the judicial conscience.”
The case was remanded to the trial court for a hearing to determine the appropriate amount of the remittitur. The court stated: “By way of guidance to the trial court, we would find it difficult to deem reasonable a loss of society award of more than seven figures and would certainly find unreasonable an award of any more than one-half of the loss of society settled upon by the jury.” Mikolajczyk v. Ford Motor Company and Mazda Motor Corporation, 2006 WL 3392219 (2006).