As a southern Illinois car crash lawyer and an experienced attorney in product liability cases, I know there are a lot of lawsuits alleging defective vehicles and vehicle parts that caused deadly rollover crashes. The Bridgestone/Firestone tire recalls a decade ago came after faulty tire construction sparked an unlikely increase in rollover crashes. This was made worse by the popularity of SUVs, a vehicle design that raises the vehicle’s center of gravity and thus increases the likelihood of a rollover. That contention was part of Show v. Ford Motor Co., an auto products liability case that ultimately did not survive its trip to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. David Show and Maria Federici were in a Ford Explorer when another driver hit the left rear tire; the SUV rolled over and both were injured. The Seventh Circuit ruled that they could not continue their case, however, because they did not get an expert to testify on the safety of the vehicle design.
Show was driving the 1993 Explorer through an Illinois intersection at about 30 mph when the other driver hit the vehicle; Federici was a passenger. It was not clear who was at fault or how serious their injuries were. The plaintiffs sued Ford, arguing that the Explorer’s design made it inherently unstable and thus was defective. At the end of discovery, plaintiffs still had not retained an expert witness to discuss the vehicle’s design. The magistrate judge found that this made it impossible for them to establish their claim under Illinois law. Illinois requires plaintiffs to show either failure to perform according to reasonable consumer expectations, or that the design proximately caused the injury. The magistrate granted summary judgment to Ford and the plaintiffs appealed.
On appeal, the plaintiffs did not deny that lacking an expert would make it impossible to establish liability by showing an inherently defective design that proximately caused their injuries. However, they told the Seventh Circuit, ordinary jurors should be able to use their own experience to establish whether the vehicle failed to live up to reasonable consumer expectations. Though the Illinois Supreme Court — whose opinion controls the law in Illinois — has not ruled on the subject, several appellate courts in the state have found expert witnesses to be necessary when some parts of the product’s design are outside of ordinary experience. Under caselaw, the Seventh said, the question of what a reasonable consumer would expect is just one way of examining the issues surrounding whether the product is unreasonably dangerous. In this case, the court said, the design of the 1993 Ford Explorer came from experts and likely requires an expert to explain, even though many jurors own cars. Intuition is not enough, the court said; physics and higher math are involved.
As a St. Louis auto products liability attorney, I’m disappointed that these plaintiffs will not get a chance to finish their case. But as a rule, I use expert testimony in cases like this because it helps the jury understand the facts better. Experts are not necessarily on the side of the auto company; there are plenty of experts who have testified in the past decade about the dangerous proclivity of SUVs to roll over. (In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has devoted several studies to addressing rollover problems.) And as the Seventh Circuit pointed out, a rollover accident can be described with physics and higher math. An expert can be expensive, and I prefer that costs to injured people be kept low — but as a Missouri product liability lawyer, I find expert testimony helpful.
Even the safest driver can be betrayed by a car or auto part that isn’t safe to use. If you or someone you love suffered an accident because of a defective auto part, you should call Carey, Danis & Lowe for help. For a free, confidential case evaluation, send us a message online or call 1-877-678-3400 today.
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