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Illinois Supreme Court Throws Out Jury Verdict in Auto Product Liability Case – Jablonski v. Ford Motor Co.

By September 29, 2011July 23rd, 2019Auto Accidents, Product Liability

As a southern Illinois defective products lawyer, I know defects in auto products are among the deadliest product defects, because they expose their victims to high-speed auto accidents. Most drivers could stand to be a little more careful, but no matter how much care you use, you’re only as safe as your vehicle is. An alleged defect in a Lincoln Town Car killed a man and badly injured a woman in Jablonski v. Ford Motor Co., in which the Illinois Supreme Court ultimately rejected a large jury verdict in the family’s favor. John and Dora Jablonski were stopped in their Lincoln Town Car when Natalie Ingrahm caused a crash that killed John and left Dora permanently disfigured. Dora and her son, John Jr., won a $43 million verdict in Madison County court, but the Illinois Supreme Court reversed, finding that the evidence for negligent design was not sufficient.
The Jablonskis were heading home when they reached a construction zone and came to a complete stop. Ingrahm rear-ended them at 55 to 65 miles per hour. The crash sent a large pipe wrench in the Jablonskis’ trunk flying into the Town Car’s gas tank, which in turn caused a fire. John died and Dora was severely burned, causing permanent disfigurement. Dora and John Jr. later sued Ingrahm, who settled, and Ford. At trial, they alleged Ford had willfully and wantonly defectively designed the Town Car by placing the fuel tank vertically behind the axle; failing to shield the tank; and failing to warn consumers of the risk. The trial relied heavily on expert testimony on auto design, which noted that Ford has mostly moved away from placing gas tanks behind the axle and allegedly knows this placement is unsafe. It also included evidence of Ford adding gas tank shields to Crown Victoria Police Interceptors — which are designed on the same platform as the Town Car — but not warning the Jablonskis or other Town Car owners. This last theory had never been pleaded and was included in jury instructions over Ford’s objections. Ford appealed the ruling to an Illinois appeals court, and again to the Illinois Supreme Court.
Before the state high court, Ford argued that it should have won judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the plaintiffs did not present enough evidence that Ford breached any standard of care. The high court rejected this as to compliance with industry standards, saying Ford is wrong to argue that compliance with industry standards is enough to show no liability. However, it agreed with Ford that the evidence presented on risk vs. the utility of moving the fuel tank failed to show Ford was negligent. The evidence is too mixed to show that Ford chose an unreasonably dangerous design, it said. Finally, on the post-sale duty to warn count, it found that evidence for it was not truly submitted at trial. The high court also found the jury instructions improperly used language not adopted in Illinois and declined to adopt it. It said Ford’s choice to add shields to the Crown Victoria trunks was a voluntary undertaking that did not extend to civilian vehicles on the same platform like the Jablonskis’. Thus, it reversed the verdict and remanded to trial court.
As a St. Louis auto accident attorney, I know this is an ongoing issue with certain Ford vehicles. That’s especially true for police vehicles, which as this decision notes are frequently involved in high-speed crashes because of the nature of police work. In fact, Ford has recently stopped making the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor altogether. However, even those of us who just use cars to get to work and errands are subject to other drivers’ bad decisions, as the Jablonski family was. This, it’s likely that similar claims will continue to spring up in Illinois, Missouri and across the United States. Of course, the claims in any individual lawsuit may not stand up to legal scrunity. That’s why part of my job as a Missouri personal injury lawyer is to construct and defend my clients’ cases as carefully as possible.

If you or someone you love suffered a serious car wreck through no fault of your own, Carey, Danis & Lowe may be able to help. For a free, confidential case evaluation, send us a message online or call toll-free at 1-877-678-3400.
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