The Illinois Supreme Court issued a decision that establishes the necessity of instructing the jury on the elements of the “risk-utility” test relevant to the defense of a product’s design.
The plaintiff’s decedent, James Mikolajczyk, was killed when a speeding drunk driver slammed his 4,000-pound vehicle into the Mikolajczyk vehicle.
At trial, the plaintiff proceeded on a strict product liability theory and alleged that the driver’s seat of the plaintiff's vehicle was defectively designed, because the seat collapsed when the vehicle was struck from the rear.
Plaintiff contended that a non-yielding seat would have prevented the death.
The defense defended the design of the vehicle's front seat with evidence that a yielding seat’s utility far outweighed its risks, and that no feasible design could have prevented the death of the plaintiff’s decedent given the violent impact. The defense presented evidence that 95% of rear-end collisions occur at low speeds, and that, at low speeds, a yielding seat provides much more protection than the rigid seat advocated by the plaintiff.
Based upon the parties’ competing evidence concerning the risks and utility of yielding seats, the defense proposed non-pattern jury instructions addressing the concept of alternate feasible design and instructing the jury that when determining the reasonableness of a product’s design, the overall safety of a product must be considered.
The trial court refused the defense's proposed instructions and gave the jury pattern instructions that focused solely on the consumer expectations test and ignored the defendant's risk-utility defense. In the absence of an instruction to balance the risks and benefits of the seat design or to consider the feasibility of alternative designs, the jury returned a verdict of $27 million; most of the award, $25 million, constituted the jury’s calculation of loss of society damages.
On appeal, the appellate court agreed with the defense argument that the jury’s loss of society award was excessive, and should be substantially reduced by the trial court. Other than to reverse and remand the loss of society award, the appellate court affirmed the circuit court’s judgment.
After the supreme court accepted the defense's petition for review, the plaintiff cross-appealed for reinstatement of the entire $25 million loss of society award. The supreme court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial, because the trial court abused its discretion by refusing the defense's non-pattern instructions pertaining to the risk-utility test.
The court ruled that, if either party presents evidence sufficient to require the jury to engage in a risk-utility analysis, the instructions should reflect that the consumer expectation test represents but one factor in a broader, integrated risk-utility analysis.
Where a product liability defendant introduces evidence that no feasible alternative design exists or that the product’s design presents benefits that outweigh its risk, the defendant is entitled to a corresponding jury instruction, regardless of the plaintiff’s election to frame its case in terms of consumer expectations.