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Bollmeier v. Ford Motor Co.

NOVEMBER 25, 1970.




APPEAL from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County; the Hon. JOSEPH E. FLEMING, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiffs appeal from a judgment of the Circuit Court of St. Clair County entered upon an allowance of defendants' motion for directed verdicts made at the close of the plaintiff's evidence.

This action in strict liability was brought by Howard Bollmeier for damages to his automobile and by Gary Bollmeier, a minor, by Howard Bollmeier, his father and next friend, for personal injuries sustained when his father's 1966 Thunderbird automobile driven by Gary left the road and was involved in a one-car accident allegedly caused by the failure of the automobile to steer properly because of alleged defects in the automobile. Defendant Ford Motor Company is the manufacturer and defendant Donald Riess, d/b/a Riess Ford Sales, hereinafter "Riess," is the dealer from whom the automobile was purchased.

Plaintiffs' multiple count complaint contains allegations of negligence and breach of implied warranty against both defendants.

The evidence shows that the accident occurred on Saturday evening, July 9, 1966. Gary Bollmeier, then 20 years of age, was driving his father's 1966 Ford Thunderbird. About seven o'clock he drove from his home in Marissa to Lenzburg, approximately four miles northwest on Route 13, where he went to a picnic. It was cloudy and he left after about 45 minutes. He had had nothing alcoholic to drink. He made a left turn from Main Street in Lenzburg onto Route 13, a paved two-lane highway, and proceeded toward New Athens. He had his seat belt fastened and was alone in the car. Approximately one mile from Lenzburg he approached a moderate curve to the left traveling at 45 to 50 miles per hour. He slowed his speed to about 45 miles per hour to make the curve. It had started to rain very slightly and he had both hands on the wheel. He testified, "I was following the road, steering normally, turned to the left as the road would go, and as I was going into the curve, the car didn't respond to my normal turning and I turned the wheel some more. The car continued straight on, off the road, and after I noticed it wasn't turning, wouldn't respond to my turning of the steering wheel, I applied the brakes and my front wheels went off the road and my car continued off the road into a creek." He had traveled about seventy feet on concrete on the curve and did not apply his brakes until he started to leave the pavement. He stepped on the power brake as hard as he could and the wheels locked as the car traveled approximately 150 feet over hard sod into a creek embankment. There was testimony that the wheel tracks left in the sod indicated that the wheels were not turned to the left, but were headed in the direction of the car. He suffered personal injuries to his chin and jaw and the evidence indicated that the car could not be repaired. At that time the car had approximately 4400 miles on it.

The car, a two-door hardtop with power-steering, power-brakes, automatic transmission and automatic speed control, was delivered to the Bollmeiers early in April, 1966. From the time it was delivered the Bollmeiers observed a vibration which could be seen and felt in the steering column and the steering wheel. They also heard a humming noise which was described as similar to a swarm of bees or the sound of snow tires. Mr. Bollmeier testified that on the week-end after he took delivery his family drove to Carbondale, Illinois, a distance of approximately sixty miles, and by the time they arrived there they were practically deaf from the humming sound. On the following Monday they took the car back to Don Riess for the first time. Mr. Bollmeier testified that he could feel the vibrations in his hand on the steering wheel and he could also see it. Mrs. Bollmeier and Gary Bollmeier also testified to this vibration and humming sound. Mrs. Bollmeier testified that they had traded in another Thunderbird on this one, but had had no similar experience with it or any other car they had had. She knew this car was taken back to Riess's garage several times due to the vibration and no one at the garage told her not to drive it. Although vibration was always present when the car was driven, no one experienced any difficulty with the steering prior to the time of the accident.

Don Riess testified that he had sold the car to the Bollmeiers. It had been delivered by rail to St. Louis and by truck from St. Louis to Marissa. There were several minor problems with the car when it was delivered. It was losing power steering fluid and the car pulled hard either to the right or the left. He did not remember. These items were corrected. They did not make a road test, but they followed the check list supplied by Ford Motor Company. They found no other problems with the car. A few days after delivery Mr. Bollmeier brought the car back, complaining of the vibration sound. Riess rode in the car with Mr. Bollmeier and agreed that the vibration was like a humming or the sound of a swarm of bees or like snow tires. He changed the tires but this did not correct the problem. He admitted that the problem actually existed. They then turned the driveshaft a quarter or half of a turn as they did on the 1965 Fords when they had a similar vibration problem. Ford had suggested this solution when he called them. They changed the wheel bearings and found scratches on the bearings and races, but none of these changes corrected the problem. He then contacted the Ford garage in Clayton, Missouri, for help in diagnosing the problem. A service representative, Robert Thomas, recommended that a new driveshaft be installed. When the bearings in the car were changed, it had 342 miles on it and at that time it was necessary to clean and dress the spindle on the steering wheel and the differential was checked and indicated presence of a noise.

Sometime after the accident some persons from Ford Motor Company removed the power steering pump and the steering gear box for testing. None of the Bollmeiers made a close inspection of the steering mechanism prior to this time, but when the wrecker raised the front of the car someone observed that the wheels responded to the turning of the steering wheel. No one observed a visible defect in the steering mechanism.

James W. Kitchen testified under Section 60 of the Civil Practice Act that he works for Ford Motor Company and is in charge of testing and evaluation of components. He examined the power steering pump on this particular vehicle but was in charge only of this component. He discovered no defect and had no knowledge of any defect in any of the other parts which they removed. He testified that it was possible that a certain vibration or force over a certain period of time could break large pieces of metal. This would not happen unless there was tension or some force applied to the metal. He knew that certain vibrations could cause the loosening of bolts in an automobile. He also had first hand knowledge that a bolt will break as a result of vibration from another part to which it is attached or shear off as a result of fatigue. He also testified that if there is an imbalance in the motor it will show up as a vibration in another part of the automobile, and if something in the automobile was out of balance, it would cause a continual vibration throughout the automobile. It would be a logical sequence that certain other parts would either be loosened or could be caused to break. The loosening or breaking of a bolt in the steering mechanism could bring about the losing of control over the steering mechanism, but he was not aware of any missing or broken bolt in this particular steering mechanism.

Plaintiffs' counsel attempted to qualify Mr. Bollmeier as an expert so that he could give his opinion as to the cause of the steering failure in the car. Bollmeier is presently president of Bollmeier Construction Company which does industrial work with heavy equipment machinery of all types. He has been in the business of machinery for the past twenty-five years. He spent ten years as a Master Mechanic for United Electric Coal Company and there was in charge of all trucks, tractors, cars, heavy stripping equipment and draglines. He has personally engaged in the repair and checking of trucks and cars and personally takes charge of his own equipment to see that repairs which are needed are made. His knowledge of power steering components is based upon what he has done with other equipment that he has owned and worked on. He has never personally worked with a Ford power steering mechanism but has done work with Chrysler products. Ford's expert, James Kitchen, testified that steering mechanisms are basically the same. Mr. Bollmeier's testimony indicates that he is quite familiar with the steering mechanism involved.

Plaintiff's counsel posed a hypothetical question to Mr. Bollmeier, based on prior testimony and asked if he had an opinion as to the cause of the failure of the steering mechanism. Defendants objected and the trial court sustained the objection on the basis that Bollmeier was not qualified and had not inspected the steering mechanism in question.

On appeal plaintiffs contend that it was error for the trial court to sustain the objection to plaintiffs' hypothetical question and to direct a verdict for defendants at the close of plaintiffs' evidence.

Defendants contend that the rejection of expert testimony based on the hypothetical question was vested in the wide discretion of the trial court and is not error unless that discretion is abused.

• 1, 2 First, it is well established that an expert, if qualified, may give an opinion based on a hypothetical question and without personal knowledge of the facts. Gillette v. City of Chicago, 396 Ill. 619. Second, we believe that the trial court abused its discretion in rejecting the opinion of the witness and that his ...

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