Illinois Supreme Court reverses $43M plaintiff judgment in Ford gas tank case

Steve Korris Sep. 30, 2011, 3:00am

SPRINGFIELD – Ford Motor Co. undertook no duty to warn luxury car owners that contents of their trunks could puncture their fuel tanks when Ford helped police prevent punctures in similar cars, the Illinois Supreme Court decided on Sept. 22.

Without dissent, the Justices reversed a $43 million judgment that Madison County Circuit Judge Andy Matoesian entered for Dora Mae Jablonski on a jury verdict.

Her husband John Jablonski died and she suffered permanent injuries in 2003, when their 1993 Lincoln Town Car exploded.

Justice Mary Jane Theis wrote that all experts agreed that shields Ford designed for police cars wouldn't have prevented the rupture in the Town Car.

She wrote that "despite the clear gravity of the injury, the risk was extremely remote."

She wrote that plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence from which a jury could conclude that at the time of manufacture, Ford's conduct was unreasonable.

Theis wrote that Matoesian allowed Jablonski's lawyer, Brad Lakin of Wood River, to amend the complaint after trial so it would match the verdict. She rejected four theories that jurors, Matoesian and Fifth District appellate judges accepted, writing that Illinois wouldn't recognize one of the theories in any case.

According to the case files, the accident happened when the Jablonski's Town Car stopped for construction on Interstate 270.

The driver of the following car, Natalie Ingram, didn't even touch her brakes.

Her Chevrolet Lumina slammed into the Town Car, and a pipe wrench in the Town Car's trunk flew into the fuel tank.

Jablonski and son, John Jr., sued Ingram and Ford.

They settled with Ingram and took Ford to trial on a third amended complaint.

The plaintiffs alleged strict liability, claiming Ford was under a duty to ensure the car wasn't dangerous or defective.

They claimed Ford negligently placed the tank behind the rear axle, negligently failed to shield the tank and failed to warn buyers of the puncture risk.

At trial in 2005, plaintiff's expert Mark Arndt said the tank was defective because its location made it vulnerable to punctures.

He said location forward of the axle would have been safer and more practical, and that Ford should have placed a shield in the trunk or between the trunk and the tank.

He presented a list of 416 tank punctures, splits and tears over more than 25 years in all Ford models, without a single example from the Panther platform.

On cross examination, he said no one could design a completely fireproof tank.

He said the Town Car exceeded federal safety standards for fuel integrity and that as of 1993, no other manufacturer warned buyers how to pack trunks.

Lakin introduced a record of seven tank ruptures in cars Ford built from its Panther manufacturing platform, none of them due to movement of trunk contents.

He introduced a record of 11 punctures by trunk contents from high speed rear end collisions in Crown Victoria police interceptors from the Panther platform.

He introduced evidence that in 2002, Ford announced remedial measures for police cars including a pack with a drop-in trunk liner and an upgrade kit with shields.

Ford presented evidence that moving the tank forward would require elimination of rear wheel drive and body on frame construction, making it a totally different car.

Matoesian excluded evidence that in 2004, a 1993 Town Car satisfied a new federal standard for a crash at 50 miles an hour.

At the close of evidence, Lakin dropped the strict liability count.

Ford moved for mistrial, arguing Lakin presented evidence under the guise that it was relevant to a strict liability claim.

Ford also moved for directed verdict, and Matoesian denied both motions.

Matoesian instructed jurors on Lakin's three negligence theories, plus a new theory.

Theis wrote, "The jury was additionally instructed on a fourth theory never before pleaded, which was failing to inform the Jablonskis of certain remedial measures taken by Ford after the manufacture of the vehicle, but prior to the Jablonskis' accident."

Ford objected, arguing Lakin never pleaded a duty to warn after the sale.

Lakin sought leave to amend the complaint, and Matoesian granted it.

Theis wrote, "No pleading was tendered to the court until after judgment."

Jurors awarded $23 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages to Dora Mae Jablonski, and $5 million to the estate.

In the next six months, Lakin amended the complaint three times.

The last one alleged that Ford failed to tell the Jablonskis about the trunk pack, shield kit and recommendations it provided to police.

Fifth District appellate judges Bruce Stewart, James Donovan and Stephen Spomer affirmed the judgment in 2010.

No one at the Supreme Court affirmed it.

Justices Thomas Freeman, Rita Garman, Lloyd Karmeier and Anne Burke joined Theis.

Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride and Justice Robert Thomas didn't participate.

Theis wrote, "A manufacturer is not required to guard against every conceivable risk, regardless of the degree of harm."

She wrote that Jablonski was required to present evidence that the risk was foreseeable and the risks inherent in the design outweighed the benefits.

She wrote that moving the tank would have introduced equal or greater risks.

"Plaintiffs must show more than the technical possibility of an alternative design."

She wrote that the risk never manifested itself in the 15 years that millions of Panther platform vehicles were on the road prior to 1993.

She wrote that there was insufficient evidence to justify submission of the first three negligence claims to the jury.

On the fourth theory, she wrote that a court may impose a continuing duty to warn if the manufacturer knew of the hazard at the time of manufacture.

"Nevertheless, that theory was not presented to the jury at trial," she wrote.

She wrote that Illinois has rejected the imposition of any post-sale duty to warn if the product was not defective at the time of sale.

She wrote that Matoesian's instruction "allowed the jury to find Ford negligent even if Ford had not breached a duty of care existing at the time the car was manufactured."

"The instruction allowed the jury to recognize a duty that could arise based upon knowledge of risks discovered after the sale of the car even if it found Ford had not acted unreasonably at the time the car was manufactured."

She wrote that the theory was "legally defective and improperly submitted to the jury for its consideration."

She wrote that Ford directed the trunk pack specifically at police safety.

"That undertaking did not create a duty owed toward other individual civilian customers," she wrote.

"Furthermore, at no time in any of plaintiffs' six iterations of its complaint did they ever contend that Ford undertook a voluntary duty with respect to any non police customers," she wrote.

Dan Ball, Elizabeth Carver, Alan Dixon, Peter Herzog, Stephen Strauss and Thomas Walsh, all of Bryan Cave in St. Louis, represented Ford.

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