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Frequently Asked Questions About Product Liability Law, Part II, by Clifford Law Offices' Partner Richard Burke

Question: With respect to motor vehicles, what type of incidents might give rise to a product liability case? Rich: We certainly see these cases arising out of what are often just the very basic types of traffic accidents that occur on the highway everyday.  You have to keep in mind that vehicles are known and expected to be operated at highway speeds, which in many instances, especially when you get out into some rural areas, the speed limits are literally 70mph or 75mph.  But even at much lower speeds, we see rear impacts where a seat back may fail, and by that I meant the back of the driver's seat will collapse backwards.  The unfortunate effect of that is to propel the occupant, either driver or a passenger, backward in their seat.  They can be driven upwards so that their head impacts the interior roof of the car, or they can hit a rear seat and cause compression fractures to their neck, resulting in spinal cord type injuries that usually cause some degree of paralysis. Question: What does the term, crashworthiness mean and how does it relate to product liability cases? Rich: Crashworthiness really refers to the capability of a vehicle or component parts to, in the most basic sense, be crashworthy, and by that, I mean to be able to withstand a crash and not cause or enhance injury to an occupant.  Vehicle manufacturers know and expect that their cars and trucks and SUV's are going to be involved in collisions  -- that's simply a known fact and it happens everyday and, therefore, the government requires, and the manufacturers have an obligation to design vehicles with the expectation that the vehicles are going to be involved in reasonably foreseeable crashes.  And the interior parts of the vehicle have to be designed so as to be certain not to enhance or increase injury to an occupant in the event of a crash.  A vehicle may roll over because of a defect in the center of gravity that causes the vehicle to have too high of a center of gravity that results in it rolling over unexpectedly.  However, even after that occurs, the roof of the vehicle should not cave in to the interior compartment of the vehicle and cause further injuries.  Or in a rear-impact type collision, a consumer does not expect the seat to collapse, so as to then propel their body backwards giving rise to a head injury inside of the vehicle.  Or even if there is a front-end collision, an air-bag is expected to go off in order to help reduce the potential injury.  So crashworthiness really relates to the obligations of vehicle manufacturers to help prevent and minimize injury to occupants during known and expected vehicle collisions. Question: What do I have to show to be successful in a product liability case? Rich: Basically, the legal standard is simply that you are proving that the vehicle is unreasonably dangerous and in Illinois, at the present time, there are basically two ways to accomplish that in terms of method or proof.  One is often referred to as the Consumer Expectation Test.  That really means that we have to prove that the product failed to perform as a consumer would reasonably expect it to perform when the product is being used in a normal and expected manner.  A second way of proving a product to be unreasonably dangerous is by evidence that gives rise to a Risk Utility Analysis.  That essentially involves circumstances where even if the product performs as expected, the product still may have risks that outweigh the utility or usefulness of the product, and in those instances, we show that there are other types of reasonable alternative designs, that could have been employed and could have been used for a safer design and could have been accomplished at a similar price or without any significantly greater cost to the manufacturer.  

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