Illinois Federal Court Denies Summary Judgment Motion Of Auto Hauling Rig Manufacturer On Product Liability, Negligence, And Punitive Damages Claims Under Kentucky Law

A man working as a car hauler was injured when he slipped and fell from the second tier of an auto hauling rig.  The rig had a “Canadian guardrail” installed, but had not been fitted with other safety features including grab bars, guard rails, or cat walks.  These features were installed on many older rigs through a retrofitting program as well as included on all newly-manufactured rigs.  The car hauler sued the rig’s manufacturer for strict product liability, negligence, and willful and wanton conduct.  The manufacturer moved for summary judgment on all claims and sought judgment as a matter of law that the evidence could not sustain punitive damages.  Earlier this week, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied the motion in its entirety.

As plaintiff’s theory of the case was that the rig was defectively designed, the court collapsed the strict liability and negligence claims and focused on whether the product was “unreasonably dangerous.”  The manufacturer first argued that it was not liable under the Sharp doctrine, which holds that a manufacturer cannot be liable for defective design when the product was manufactured in accordance with specifications provided by the buyer, and the alleged defect was open and obvious.  Noting that the buyer’s selection of a widely pre-existing safety feature was not design, the court held Sharp inapplicable.  Second, the court held that the car hauler presented sufficient evidence – namely expert testimony that additional safety features could have been included – from which a jury could conclude that the manufacturer’s design had a negative risk utility.  Third, the court held that photographs of the rig and the car hauler’s inability to grab onto anything to brace himself from falling are sufficient evidence from which a jury could establish that the absence of safety features caused the injuries.  Finally, the court held the car hauler’s suggestion that the manufacturer isolated its engineers from news of injuries could show sufficient indifference to the safety of users to warrant punitive damages.


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