Justices hear arguments in $43 million Jablonski case

Ann Knef Nov. 23, 2010, 3:42am


Ford Motor Co. pleaded with Illinois Supreme Court Justices last week to overturn a $43 million Madison County verdict awarded to Dora Mae Jablonski in 2005.

Constantine L. Trela Jr. of Sidley Austin in Chicago, on behalf of Ford, argued that manufacturers would be subject to open-ended liability for years to come if the judgment were allowed to stand, according to a report in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

The case went to the Supreme Court after the Fifth District Appellate Court in February affirmed Madison County Circuit Judge Andy Matoesian, who entered judgment for Jablonski after trial.

Jablonski suffered severe burns and her husband, John Jablonski, died after the fuel tank in their 1993 Lincoln Town Car exploded.

"We firmly believe that the parties received a fair trial in this case," Appellate Court Justice Bruce Stewart wrote in February.

Justices James Donovan and Stephen Spomer joined the opinion.

In 2003, John Jablonski stopped his Lincoln in a line of vehicles at a construction site on Interstate 270 at Illinois Route 203.

The next vehicle didn't stop or even slow down.

Driver Natalie Ingram said later that she took her eyes off the road to find sunglasses.

Her vehicle hit the Lincoln.

A pipe wrench in the trunk flew into the tank and ripped it open, igniting the fuel.

John, 74 years old, and Dora Mae, 71, escaped the burning car.

John died, and Dora suffered permanent injuries.

Dora and son John Jr. sued, alleging negligence and seeking punitive damages.

At trial, Ford pleaded unique circumstances and pointed out that no Town Car had ever exploded due to an item in the trunk breaching the tank.

The Jablonskis showed jurors a list of 416 similar accidents that Ford compiled in 1992.

They pointed out that two states asked Ford to redesign tanks in police vehicles because officers had died in similar crashes.

They showed that in 2002, Ford sent warnings and instructions for packing trunks to police departments, dealers, and government agencies that owned 32,000 cars.

Jurors awarded $23 million to Dora for her injuries, $5 million to Dora and John Jr. for loss of John Sr., and $15 million in punitive damages.

At the appellate court, Ford claimed Jablonski didn't identify a standard of care that it violated.

Ford claimed Matoesian shouldn't have allowed negligence claims to go to the jury.

Ford claimed Matoesian shouldn't have permitted punitive damages.

The Fifth District supported Matoesian all the way.

At the appellate court, Charles Chapman of LakinChapman in Wood River represented the Jablonskis. Stephen Strauss of Bryan Cave in St. Louis represented Ford.

At trial, Brad Lakin of the Lakin Law Firm in Wood River represented the Jablonskis. James Feeney of Dykema Gossett in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. and co-counsel Dan Ball of Bryan Cave in St. Louis represented Ford.

Steve Korris contributed to this report.

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