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Rockett v. Chevrolet Motor Div.

JULY 23, 1975.




APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. THOMAS H. FITZGERALD, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied September 10, 1975.

This is an action brought by plaintiff, Horace G. Rockett, for personal injuries suffered when the Chevrolet Truck in which he was a passenger left the highway and overturned. Plaintiff claims that the 4-year-old vehicle had been defectively manufactured by defendant, General Motors, and that such defects were the proximate cause of the accident. At the close of plaintiff's case, the trial court granted defendant's motion for a directed verdict and entered judgment accordingly. Plaintiff appeals.

Plaintiff contends that (1) the trial court erred in granting defendant's motion for a directed verdict and (2) the cause should be reversed and remanded for a new trial with instructions that certain evidence offered at trial by plaintiff and denied by the court be admitted into evidence. The nature of the issues before us necessitates a detailed discussion of the evidence adduced at trial.

On May 22, 1966, plaintiff was severely injured while riding as a passenger in a 1962 Chevrolet Model C 1404 half-ton pickup truck. The injuries occurred when the truck left the highway and overturned on Route 66 outside of Dwight, Illinois. Plaintiff's employer, South Suburban Safeway Lines, had purchased the subject truck from defendant on April 20, 1962. The purchase order called for the installation of heavy-duty rear springs. At the time of the accident, the truck was 4 years old and had been driven approximately 61,000 miles.

The circumstances of the accident were testified to by plaintiff, a State trooper who investigated the accident scene, and Roland Maerz, the driver of the vehicle. The accident occurred at about 1:40 p.m. on a clear, sunny, dry day; however, it was an extremely windy day with wind gusts up to 45 miles per hour. At the direction of their employer, Maerz and plaintiff were driving south from Chicago to Bloomington, Illinois, to perform road service on a company bus disabled by two flat tires. Maerz testified that the greatest speed he attained during their journey was 55 miles per hour, although plaintiff stated that at one point in time he noticed the speedometer read 60 miles per hour. They had driven on Route 66 for 5 to 10 miles prior to the accident. At speeds in excess of 45 miles per hour Maerz did not like the control of the vehicle and so he would decelerate. He testified that strong gusty winds buffeted the truck, especially when large trucks passed in the opposite direction. The passing of a truck caused him to go off course about 3 feet to one side.

Just prior to the accident, Maerz was driving in the right-hand lane approximately 1 foot from the pavement edge. He estimated the vehicle's speed at no more that 45 miles per hour. At that location there was a 6-inch drop from the pavement to the highway shoulder. A large truck passed them in the opposite direction, and immediately, thereafter, both right wheels of their truck left the roadway and dropped over the 6-inch ledge to the shoulder. Plaintiff's vehicle travelled 86 feet in this fashion before regaining the pavement. The truck then skidded left across the roadway, overturned, and came to a rest upside down in the median strip. A bus tire, which was being hauled unsecured in the truck bed, flew or fell from the truck during the accident and was found in a ditch along the right-hand side of the highway. Upon inspection of the vehicle it was further learned that both right tires came partially off their rims. At the time of the accident the truck was carrying weight just 30 pounds short of the maximum capacity of that model equipped with heavy duty springs.

Paul Madsen, purchasing agent for South Suburban Safeway Lines, testified that he purchased the subject truck new from George R. Gibson Chevrolet in South Holland, Illinois. He did not know whether the rear springs were installed by the dealer. Nor did he know whether the truck had been equipped with heavy-duty rear springs as ordered. Previously, he had not requested George Gibson Chevrolet to install springs on any of the other company vehicles. Madsen further testified that to his knowledge the subject truck had never been in an accident. If it had, he would have known because he would have purchased the necessary parts. The only changes made to the physical configuration of the truck were the installation of a hydraulic tailgate weighing between 400 and 500 pounds, and the placement of a sheet metal bottomer inside the truck box to facilitate the loading and unloading of salt. Madsen testified that he drove the truck in 1964, and that it steered smoothly like a pleasure car. To his knowledge the rear springs and shock absorbers had never been changed. Nor had a wheel alignment ever been performed. The truck had different tires than it had on the day of purchase, but they were of the same size. The company had no available facilities to check or reset casters. Madsen saw the truck in Dwight, Illinois, on the day after the accident.

Plaintiff claims that the subject truck was defective in two respects at the time it left defendant manufacturer's control and that the two defects, either independently or in concert, proximately caused his injury. He asserts that the vehicle was manufactured with grossly maladjusted front-wheel caster and that it had not been equipped with heavy-duty rear springs as ordered, but rather with much softer springs.

At the time of trial, the truck was not available to any of the parties. The record reveals that shortly after the accident, South Suburban Safeway Lines had it transported to Commercial Truck and Body Company where it remained undisturbed for approximately 3 months. Ultimately, the vehicle was cut apart for salvage purposes and the relevant parts are now buried under 15 feet of landfill. Accordingly, plaintiff produced no direct evidence of the actual caster setting or of the rear springs with which the vehicle was equipped.

Plaintiff's conclusion that the truck had an improper caster setting was arrived at inferentially from Maerz' recollection of the steering and riding characteristics of the truck. Maerz was the sole witness to testify about the driving characteristics of the truck other than Paul Madsen who merely stated that it drove smoothly like a pleasure car. Maerz testified that he drove the truck shortly after its delivery and that its steering characteristics remained unchanged to the date of the accident. He observed that the truck was very sensitive to wind currents and that the passing of a large truck would cause it to move to one side or the other. Maerz testified that from his experience he found either no caster or a negative caster can cause this type of feel.

A test vehicle was constructed by plaintiff for experimental purposes from another 1962 model C 1404 Chevrolet half-ton truck and certain parts from a 1961 model C 1404 half-ton truck. Plaintiff contends that the model was an exact duplicate of the crash vehicle in all material respects except for its steering characteristics and the rear end suspension. Two of plaintiff's expert witnesses, Dr. Uzgiris and Mr. Smidl, determined that negative caster would have to be set onto the front wheels in order to achieve the sensation orally described by Maerz.

Maerz further testified that on several occasions he had operated a hydraulic lift that had been installed on the rear of the truck. He observed that the rear of the truck would drop 6 to 8 inches when using it to lift oil drums weighing from 385 to 410 pounds. Dr. Uzgiris interpreted this result to mean that heavy-duty springs could not have been installed in that vehicle because under the conditions described by Maerz, the rear springs would compress only about 2 inches. Dr. Uzgiris further testified that a soft suspension system would aggravate a problem caused by negative caster if a load were introduced into the bed of the truck.

Plaintiff contends that the trial court erred in directing a verdict for defendant. Consequently, we are concerned only with the narrow question of whether the evidence, when viewed in its aspect most favorable to plaintiff, so overwhelmingly favors defendant, that no contrary verdict based on that evidence could ever stand. Pedrick v. Peoria & Eastern R.R. Co., 37 Ill.2d 494.

• 1 In Suvada v. White Motor Co., 32 Ill.2d 612, our supreme court articulated the elements necessary to prove a prima facie case in strict liability actions. Plaintiff must prove (1) that the injury or damage resulted from a condition of the product; (2) that the condition was an unreasonably dangerous one; and (3) that the condition existed at the time it left the manufacturer's control. We emphasize that no direct testimony was introduced concerning the cause of the accident or the existence of the alleged defects. While it is true that a prima facie case may be established exclusively from circumstantial evidence, said evidence must have a reasonable probative force, for the jury will not be permitted to engage in mere speculation or imagination. (Shramek v. General Motors Corp., 69 Ill. App.2d 72, 216 N.E.2d 244.) Accordingly, unless it can be said that the evidence at bar gives rise to a reasonable inference that the injury resulted from a condition of the product, that ...

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