MOUNT VERNON – Madison County jurors made no mistake when they hit Ford Motor Company with a $43 million verdict in a fatal crash, appeals judges of the Fifth District decided in February.
The Fifth District affirmed Circuit Judge Andy Matoesian, who entered judgment on the verdict for Dora Mae Jablonski after trial in 2005.
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," Justice Bruce Stewart wrote.
"The jury heard extensive evidence from both sides, and the contested issues were fully and fairly presented," he wrote.
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.
On appeal, 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.
Five years later, the Fifth District supported Matoesian all the way.
Stewart wrote that the Jablonskis "presented expert testimony that the product was defective and evidence of an alternative product design in existence in the industry."
"Ford's obligation to warn of this hazard was a continuing duty," Stewart wrote.
"In our view, manufacturers are more likely to develop safer products if they are held accountable, on a continuing basis, for a failure to warn of hazards they knew or should have known existed at the time the product was manufactured."
The award of punitive damages was well justified, he wrote.
Charles Chapman represented the Jablonskis.
Steven Strauss represented Ford.