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Turney v. Ford Motor Co.





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. WALTER J. KOWALSKI, Judge, presiding.


Emmett Turney brought an action based on strict liability in tort against Ford Motor Company for injuries sustained while operating a tractor manufactured by Ford. Judgment was entered on the jury verdict in favor of Ford. Turney appeals.

On appeal, Turney contends that (1) the trial court erroneously admitted evidence that safety equipment was available as an option; (2) the jury was improperly instructed on the relevancy of the availability of the optional equipment; (3) evidence of Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations was improperly admitted; (4) accident reconstruction evidence was improperly admitted; (5) the issue of punitive damages should have been submitted to the jury; (6) the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on the issue of failure to warn; (7) the tractor was unreasonably dangerous as a matter of law; (8) the trial court should have directed a verdict in plaintiff's favor; and (9) plaintiff's motion for a new trial should have been granted.

We affirm.

Plaintiff Emmett Turney was injured on June 11, 1973, while operating a tractor manufactured by Ford in 1970. Turney testified that as he was mowing grass near some trees in a picnic grove, the tractor struck a burl hidden by tall grasses. The tractor was jolted off the ground and Turney was thrown from the seat. He further testified that as he was falling, he tried to push himself away from the tractor. However, when he landed on the ground the left rear tire rolled over his back. His arm was severed, his ankle was crushed, and his leg and thigh were lacerated. Turney alleged in his complaint that the tractor was unreasonably dangerous because it lacked a roll bar and seat belt and that this unreasonably dangerous condition was the proximate cause of his injuries.

The evidence produced at trial indicated that in January 1967, the Farm Conference of the National Safety Council recommended that tractors be equipped with protective frames and crush resistant cabs so that fatalities occurring from tractor turnovers would be reduced. In March of this same year, the Farm and Industrial Equipment Institute Engineering Committee (the Committee) adopted the same resolution. The American Society of Agricultural Engineers (the Society), which purports to establish safety standards for the industry, adopted the Committee's recommendation that tractors be equipped with a protective frame or roll bar and a seat belt attached to the seat. The Society recommended these measures to protect drivers in tractor rollovers.

The roll bar and seat belt combination became known in the industry as a "roll-over protection system" (ROPS). Ford offered the ROPS as optional equipment on its tractors. After being called by plaintiff as an adverse witness, Richard Zich, Ford's expert witness, testified that Ford's Tractor Division Safety Committee recommended that the ROPS be made standard equipment on all tractors. However, Ford's Marketing Division decided to sell the ROPS as an option because they were not suitable for use in areas where overhead clearance was low. Ford therefore believed that sales would decrease if safety equipment was a standard feature.

Dr. Norvall Wardle, one of plaintiff's expert witnesses, had been involved at the University of Iowa with the engineering and educational aspects of farm safety. He had investigated thousands of farm accidents, many of which involved tractor rollovers. In Dr. Wardle's opinion, the tractor involved in this case was unreasonably dangerous because it lacked safety equipment which would protect an operator in the event of a tractor rollover. In response to a hypothetical question based on plaintiff's description of the accident, Dr. Wardle testified that there was a causal connection between the absence of the ROPS and plaintiff's injuries.

Dr. Marvin Salzenstein, an engineer and plaintiff's second expert witness, testified that Turney would not have been injured if a safety belt had been installed. He therefore concluded that there was a causal connection between the absence of safety equipment and Turney's injuries. He also suggested that an effective driver protection device could be designed which would permit use in low clearance areas.

Richard Zich was called by Ford as its expert witness. He testified that a roll bar is designed to provide an envelope of protection for the driver in the event a tractor overturns. If roll bars are not installed, a seat belt is not provided because if the tractor overturned and the driver were using the belt he would be crushed. He further stated that roll bars could not be made smaller to accommodate low clearance uses because smaller roll bars would not provide adequate driver protection. No expert identified any design alternative which would eliminate the incompatibility of roll bars and low clearance uses.

Zich further testified that the tractor in question had a wide wheel base and low center of gravity. It therefore could tilt up to 45 degrees before a rollover would be likely. The independent suspension of the front axle permitted each front wheel to separately move up or down approximately five to six inches without affecting the attitude of the tractor. Further testimony by Zich revealed that if the tractor struck an obstacle 12 inches high, the independent suspension would accommodate the first five to six inches. Then, due to the weight distribution of the tractor, the entire front axle would rise, rather than the right sides of the front and rear axles. If the rear wheel lifted as a result of the front wheel's contact with an obstruction, the tractor would have stalled because of the rear wheel differential. In this case, the tractor traveled forward until it reached a nearby ravine. Further testimony revealed that in rolling over an object 12 inches tall, the tractor seat would have moved approximately 6 inches.

Mr. Zich concluded that the tractor was in neutral when it rolled down the hill to the ravine because of the absence of skid marks. The lack of mowed grass in the tractor's path led him to conclude that the power take-off to the mower box which was towed by the tractor had been disengaged by the plaintiff as the tractor cleared the burl.

He further testified that the tractor involved in the case was a low-silhouette, multipurpose tractor. This type of tractor is exempt from the OSHA requirements of roll bar and seat belt when used in orchards because the overhead clearance was low when working around trees. Each of plaintiff's experts agreed that the Ford tractor qualified as a low-silhouette tractor exempted from the OSHA requirements. They also agreed that the certain uses of tractors prohibited the use of roll bars which were available.

First, Turney argues that the trial court erred in admitting evidence concerning the availability of safety devices as optional equipment. He contends that the evidence was used by Ford in an attempt to delegate its duty of providing a safe product to the purchaser of the tractor.

• 1 The general rule is that a manufacturer has the duty to design a reasonably safe product and may not delegate that duty to the dealer, user, or purchaser of the product. (Rios v. Niagara Machine & Tool Works (1974), 59 Ill.2d 79, 319 N.E.2d 232; Robinson v. International Harvester Co. (1976), 44 Ill. App.3d 439, 358 N.E.2d 317, rev'd on other grounds (1977), 70 Ill.2d 47, 374 N.E.2d 458; Scott v. Dreis & Krump Manufacturing Co. (1975), 26 Ill. App.3d 971, 326 N.E.2d 74.) In this case, however, Ford does not argue that Turney's employer, the purchaser of the tractor, was required to provide a safe product. Ford recognizes its duty and admits that it alone had ...

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