Show v. Defendant Automobile Manufacturer

  • United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook)09/19/2011
    Client: Defendant Automobile Manufacturer
    Outcome: Affirmed judgment in favor of the firm's client

Synopsis:

The plaintiffs were the driver and passenger in a vehicle that was in a “T-bone” intersection collision with another vehicle, causing the plaintiff's vehicle to roll over.

Plaintiffs contended that their vehicle was defective and unreasonably dangerous because it rolled over after a low-speed collision with another vehicle. Plaintiffs were Chicago Mercantile Exchange traders, and claimed extensive lost income, as a consequence of the physical injuries they sustained in the accident, and sought damages for those injuries and medical bills as well.

Plaintiffs disclosed two expert witnesses, one on injury causation, and one on damages, but no expert witness as to the alleged defects in the vehicle that caused it to roll over in the accident, prompting plaintiffs’ injuries.

Plaintiffs contended that under the Illinois Supreme Court opinion in Mikolajczyk v. Ford Motor Company, they were proceeding under a “consumer expectation” theory of liability as to the defendant automobile manufacturer and no liability expert needed to be called by them to prove their prima facie case. Plaintiffs also contended that the mere fact of the accident, a rollover after a low-speed collision between vehicles, was itself evidence of defect, and adequate to send the case to the jury, without a liability expert witness.

The United States District Court, the Honorable Magistrate Morton Denlow, rejected plaintiffs’ claims and granted summary judgment to the defendant.

The Court concluded that when a plaintiff proceeds under the consumer-expectation test, he must present expert testimony to establish a prima facie case of strict product liability when the claim involves technical knowledge beyond the common knowledge and experience of jurors. A plaintiff cannot establish a defect through circumstantial evidence of the accident alone if an intervening force “could have caused the accident.”

The Court held that plaintiffs needed expert testimony to assist a jury when determining that a defect in the vehicle existed at the time it left defendant’s control, and that they need expert testimony to establish that it was a defective condition in the vehicle, and not the intervening collision with the other vehicle in the intersection, that caused it to roll over. Without expert testimony, the jury would be left to speculate from the accident alone that the vehicle contained an unreasonably dangerous defect.

The jury could not be expected to understand the dynamics of vehicle stability based on their common experience. Such evidence constituted “scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge.” A lay jury could not, without engaging in speculation, consider the evidence plaintiffs presented and determine whether a defective condition in the vehicle caused it to roll over in the circumstances of the accident.

Nor could the jury have a basis to conclude that such a condition existed when the vehicle left defendant’s control. Even if a defect could be inferred from the accident itself, it could only be inferred by an expert having knowledge of vehicle design who could identify the defect and eliminate secondary causes.

Similarly, the Court rejected plaintiffs’ claim that the vehicle defect could be proved merely by the fact of the accident itself, as a form of res ipsa loquitur. The Court stated that it cannot say here “as a matter of common sense or common experience” that a rollover could not occur after a collision in the absence of a defect. Plaintiffs needed a qualified expert to testify to a defective condition in the vehicle at the time it left defendant’s control; the mere fact of the accident was insufficient proof in that regard.

Finally, in the absence of expert testimony on defect and causation, plaintiffs also could not make out a claim of negligence by defendant. Summary judgment was appropriately entered on that count as well.

DBMS also successfully represented the client on appeal. The Seventh Circuit, affirming Magistrate Morton Denlow's decision, concluded that expert testimony is required under either Illinois or federal law, when aspects of a product's design or operation are outside the scope of a lay jury's knowledge.  

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