Mikolajczyk v. Ford Motor Co.
901 N.E. 2d 329 (Ill. 2008)

Facts:

  • On February 4, 2000, William Timberlake shared two pints of gin with a friend before getting behind the wheel of his Cadillac.
  • He was traveling approximately 60 miles per hour when he smashed into the rear of a 1996 Ford Escort that was stopped at a red light.
  • The driver of the Escort, James Mikolajczyk, suffered severe, irreversible brain trauma and spent several days on life support before his death.
  • His widow sued…Ford Motor Company and Mazda Motor Corporation, claiming defective design of the driver’s seat.
    • The seat collapsed when the car was struck from behind, causing James to be propelled rearward and to strike his head on the backseat of the car.

History:

  • The trial jury found defendants liable and awarded plaintiff $2 million in damages for loss of money, goods, and services, and $25 million for loss of society.
  • Appellate Court affirmed in part and reversed in part.
  • Defendants argued that the courts erred in using the consumer-expectation test rather than the risk-utility test, and that the risk-utility test should be the exclusive test.

Issue:
Whether the risk-utility test should be the exclusive test in design defect cases.

Holding:
No.

Reasoning:

  • The court held that “both the consumer-expectation test and the risk-utility test may be utilized in a strict liability design defect case to prove that the product is ‘unreasonably dangerous.’ Whether an instruction is required on either test or both tests will depend on the issues raised in the pleadings and the evidence presented at trial. When both tests are employed, consumer expectation is to be treated as one factor in the multifactor risk-utility analysis.”
    • Each party is entitled to choose its own method of proof, to present relevant evidence, and to request a corresponding jury instruction. If the evidence is sufficient to implicate the risk-utility test, the broader test, which incorporates the factor of consumer expectations, is to be applied by the finder of fact.
  • The reality here is that all the D (although both sides can do it) has to do is introduce evidence risk-utility, and the judge will give the case to the jury with a risk-utility instruction.

Rule: Both the consumer-expectation test and the risk-utility test may be utilized in a strict liability design defect case to prove that the product is unreasonably dangerous.

Rule: In a strict product liability case based on design defect, if the evidence presented by either or both parties supports the application of the integrated risk-utility balancing test, an appropriate instruction is to be given at the request of either party.