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Stahl v. Ford Motor Co.

OPINION FILED OCTOBER 26, 1978.

SEBALD STAHL, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Peoria County; the Hon. ROBERT E. HUNT, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE SCOTT DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

This is an appeal from the entry of judgment by the circuit court of Peoria County after a jury verdict. The jury had awarded the plaintiff, Sebald Stahl, $75,000 in damages for injuries which he suffered in a single vehicle collision. Stahl did not allege that the defendants, Ford Motor Company and Peoria Motors, Inc., were liable for the injuries proximately caused by the original collision, but he did allege that Ford and Peoria Motors were strictly liable in tort for the aggravation of Stahl's injuries caused by the defective design of a seat belt mechanism which became detached from the cab of the truck Stahl was driving.

On November 23, 1971, Sebald Stahl was an employee of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company (hereinafter known as WABCO). On that date and in the course of his employment, Stahl drove a 1971 Ford C-750 CL truck southward from Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, toward Edmonton. The truck had been manufactured by the Ford Motor Company and sold to WABCO by Peoria Motors, Inc. The cab of the truck was designed with a bench seat. The shift lever was located on the right side of the steering column, the parking brake lever and the ignition switch were located on the dashboard on the left side of the steering column. The cab of the truck was equipped with seat belts. Before Stahl left Fort McMurray, he buckled his seat belt.

Stahl proceeded southward toward Edmonton on Route 63 which is paved for approximately 10 miles out of town. The temperature was slightly above zero. The heater in the cab was on and when the cab heated Stahl pulled off the road, stopped the truck, and took off his jacket. He rebuckled the seat belt and pulled in the slack so that the belt was reasonably tight.

Stahl continued southward after he left the paved portion of the roadway. The road was icy and rutted and snow was compacted on the road. There was still some falling snow and some drifting.

Stahl was driving at about 45 miles per hour. The truck was geared so that it would slow down when the driver removed his foot from the accelerator. The truck slows rapidly due to engine drag in the driveline.

As Stahl continued southward, a tractor with a lowboy trailer approached from the south. Both that driver and Stahl attempted to stay close to their respective shoulders. The other truck trailed a cloud of snow because there was a great deal of powder snow in the air. Stahl could not see the shoulder clearly because of the cloud of snow and therefore he simply slowed the truck in an effort to control it. After the cloud passed, Stahl saw that he was too far over to the right and he attempted to correct this. He found that when he attempted to straighten the truck it veered across the center line and then back onto the right shoulder. The back of the truck fishtailed and he could not straighten out. He was driving at approximately 35 miles per hour when he was blinded by the snow cloud and he was driving at approximately 30 when he tried to straighten the truck.

The truck left the shoulder and started down the embankment. The slope had a three to one ratio downhill. This meant that there was a three foot horizontal extension for each one foot of drop. There was a 15-20 degree angle to the slope. The slope was smooth and snow covered but bumpier than the road. The truck proceeded down the slope at approximately a 30 degree angle from the road and traveled approximately 1,000 feet. Stahl held onto the steering wheel in an attempt to hold the truck in the direction it was travelling and to come to a safe stop. The truck slid down the incline and crossed a shallow valley where there was a severe bump. The truck rolled slightly up hill and the left side of the cab struck the embankment.

Upon impact, Stahl noticed that glass was flying and the rear windshield was broken as well as the front windshield. He found himself somewhat off the front seat sitting on it with one buttock and leaning either against the door sill or the left door itself. One shoulder was up against the back seat. Stahl had not lost consciousness and had not suffered a blow to the head, although he could not remember exactly what happened in the cab of the truck. Stahl reached for the seat belt to unbuckle it. The belt was no longer there.

When Stahl examined himself, he found a deep gash in his left wrist. His watch was hanging on by a thread. His left foot was trapped and he couldn't move and he had no strength in his left leg. Stahl did not have pain in his hand or knee but did have pain in his toes caused when his foot had become trapped. The floorboard on the left side of the truck heaved up an inch or two and pushed the toe of his shoe and foot up against the cover plate. He had a bruise on his chest.

When driving in a normal position the driver straddles the steering column; one foot is on the left side and the other on the right. After the accident, Stahl's left foot was on the left side of the steering column, in the same position it would have been had he been driving normally and wearing a seat belt.

In the collision Stahl suffered a comminuted fracture of the left wrist and a broken left kneecap which was later removed.

The first amended complaint filed by Stahl against the Ford Motor Company complained that Ford designed, manufactured, and sold the truck which was in an unreasonably dangerous condition at the time it left the control of Ford because the design of the mechanism by which the seat belt assembly was attached to the frame of the truck was defective and because the installation of the mechanism by which the seat belt assembly was attached to the frame of the truck was defective. It also alleged that the parking brake lever on the motor vehicle was positioned and mounted on the dashboard and was allowed to protrude from the dashboard so that the operator was exposed to great bodily harm during collision and roll over conditions. As a direct and proximate result of one or more of the unreasonably dangerous conditions alleged, the seat belt assembly detached from the frame of the truck at some time during the vehicle collision and this permitted plaintiff to strike with great force and violence against diverse parts of the interior of the cab, including the parking brake mounted upon and protruding from the dashboard of the truck, by reason of which Stahl suffered injuries. The same allegations were alleged against Peoria Motors which sold the truck to Stahl's employer, WABCO.

Trial commenced on May 13, 1977. Stahl and his experts testified; Ford presented no evidence. The jury found in favor of Stahl and against Ford and Peoria Motors and assessed damages at $75,000. (Ford Motor Company and Peoria ...


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