Michael S. Mayer, Esq., Freeborn & Peters LLP, Chicago
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Jablonski v. Ford Motor Co.: Attempting To Clarify the “Duty” Analysis in a Negligent-Product-Design Case
It has been over 30 years since the California Court of Appeals published its opinion in the Ford Pinto case. Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co., 174 Cal.Rptr. 348, 119 Cal.App.3d 757 (1981). That case caught the nation’s attention due to the plaintiffs’ horrific physical injuries and the jury’s $125 million punitive damages award, which was later reduced. The Illinois Supreme Court recently faced a case with a very similar fact pattern in Jablonski v. Ford Motor Co., 2011 IL 110096, 955 N.E.2d 1138, 353 Ill.Dec. 327, but found that the jury’s verdict for the plaintiffs could not be upheld.
The court’s analysis focused on the “duty” element in a negligent-product-design case and considered both presale and post-sale actions by Ford. Specifically, it addressed:
1. the relevance of complying with industry standards;
2. the risk-utility balancing test;
3. the (lack of a) post-sale duty to warn; and
4. the voluntary undertaking doctrine in the context of subsequent remedial measures.
Although Jablonski specifically involved the design of an automobile’s fuel system, the court’s discussion is relevant to virtually all companies that design consumer products.
Factual and Procedural Background
In 2003, an Illinois couple was traveling home in their 1993 Lincoln Town Car when they were struck from behind by another vehicle while stopped in a construction zone. 2011 IL 110096 at ¶3. This caused a large pipe wrench in the Lincoln Town Car’s trunk to puncture the back of its fuel tank. Id. The car burst into flames, permanently disfiguring the wife and killing the husband. Id.
The plaintiffs (the wife and the husband’s special administrator and personal representative) sued Ford, alleging negligent design of the fuel tank and willful and wanton conduct. 110096 at ¶1. After trial, the jury returned a large verdict in the plaintiffs’ favor: $28 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages, and the appellate court affirmed. Id. The Illinois Supreme Court heard the appeal in order to “clarify the duty analysis in a negligent-product-design case” and reversed the judgments below. Id.
Court’s Analysis of Pre-Sale Considerations: Compliance with Industry Standards and Risk-Utility Balance
The court began its opinion by reiterating that product liability actions with claims based on negligence are grounded on fundamental concepts of common-law negligence. 2011 IL 110096 at ¶82. Therefore, a plaintiff must establish the familiar duty, breach, causation, and damage elements. Id. Yet, because “[a] manufacturer has a nondelegable duty to design a reasonably safe product . . . the key question in a negligent-design case is whether the manufacturer exercised reasonable care in designing the product.” 2011 IL 110096 at ¶83.
First, the court clarified that conformance to an industry standard is not dispositive on the issue of negligence. 2011 IL 110096 at ¶91. Instead, evidence of industry standard compliance is merely “a factor to be considered in the balance and has always been relevant to determining whether a defendant has exercised reasonable care in designing a product.” Id. Thus, neither conformity to industry standards nor violation of industry standards requires judgment as a matter of law. 2011 IL 110096 at ¶92. The court emphasized that the relevant standard for negligent design cases “remains whether the conduct was reasonable under the circumstances” and, therefore, must be made on a case-by-case basis. Id.
Second, the court addressed the risk-utility balancing test as a way to determine whether the manufacturer exercised reasonable care. Citing to the RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS §291 (1965), the court stated that such a determination “encompasses a balancing of the risks inherent in the product design with the utility or benefit derived from the product.” Jablonski, supra, 2011 IL 110096 at ¶84. The court stated: “When the risk of harm outweighs the utility of a particular design, there is a determination that the manufacturer exposed the consumer to a greater risk of danger than is acceptable to society.” 2011 IL 110096 at ¶84. The court set forth a long list of factors that may be relevant to the risk-utility analysis depending on the particular facts and circumstances of each case. 2011 IL 110096 at ¶¶85 – 87.
The court also focused on the plaintiffs’ burden in a negligent-design case because “[a] manufacturer is not required to guard against every conceivable risk, regardless of the degree of harm.” 2011 IL 110096 at ¶96. Instead, the plaintiff must show that the manufacturer’s conduct in designing the product was unreasonable by presenting evidence that the risk was foreseeable and outweighed the benefits. Id. Additionally, because the plaintiffs had argued that Ford should have designed the fuel tank in another location, the court found that “[i]t is not sufficient that [an] alternative design would have reduced or prevented the harm suffered by the plaintiff if it would also introduce into the product other dangers of equal or greater magnitude.” 2011 IL 110096 at ¶102, quoting RESTATEMENT (THIRD) OF TORTS: PRODUCTS LIABILITY §2 cmt. f. (1998).
Applying this law to the claims and evidence in the case, the court found that the plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that—at the time of manufacture—Ford acted unreasonably in either its design or in failing to warn of the risk that trunk contents could puncture the fuel tank. Jablonski, supra, 2011 IL 110096 at ¶ 107. Ford had complied with industry standards, other manufacturers continued to produce vehicles with similar fuel systems, and the risk of injury was “extremely remote.” Id.
Court’s Analysis of Post-Sale Considerations: Duty To Warn and Voluntary Undertakings
The court then turned to Ford’s post-sale conduct in considering an alleged duty to warn. The plaintiffs premised this theory on Ford’s subsequent remedial measures for a similarly designed police vehicle. 2011 IL 110096 at ¶109. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that Ford was negligent in failing to inform them of the existence of an upgrade kit consisting of a trunk liner and recommendations for packing items in the trunk. 2011 IL 110096 at ¶¶43 – 48, 109. The court reiterated that “a continuing duty [to warn] may be imposed if at the time of manufacture of the product the manufacturer knew or should have known of the hazard.” 2011 IL 110096 at ¶114. However, in Illinois, there is no post-sale duty to warn if the product was not defective at the time of sale, and the court declined to consider whether Illinois should adopt a post-sale duty to warn. 2011 IL 110096 at ¶¶116 – 119. The court found that the trial court erred in instructing the jury on imposing a post-sale duty to warn when the product was not defective at the time of sale. 2011 IL 110096 at ¶ 117.
Finally, the court addressed the plaintiffs’ voluntary undertaking theory of liability. Under that theory “the duty of care to be imposed upon a defendant is limited to the extent of the undertaking [and] is narrowly construed.” 2011 IL 110096 at ¶ 123. The court found that Ford specifically directed the development of the upgrade kit and recommendations in order to improve police safety related to the use of certain police vehicles; therefore, it did not create a duty owed toward civilian consumers, even if their cars were similarly designed. 2011 IL 110096 at 126.
Corporate “Take-Aways” from Jablonski
Overall, while Jablonski does not add much truly new law, it does provide corporations with some guidance on how Illinois courts should analyze negligent-product-design cases. It reconfirms that merely complying with industry standards is insufficient, that a risk-utility balance is an important factor that courts will take into consideration in negligent-product-design cases, that there remains no post-sale duty to warn in Illinois (as long as the product was not defective at the time of sale), and that companies need to be very careful with the scope of any subsequent voluntary undertakings. Jablonski also shows that, 30 years after the Ford Pinto case, the law of negligent-product-design cases is still being clarified in an effort to strike a proper balance between avoiding overly burdensome business costs and protecting consumers.