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Artis v. Fibre Metal Products

OPINION FILED MARCH 17, 1983.

ZAVIE ARTIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

FIBRE METAL PRODUCTS, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Arthur A. Sullivan, Jr., Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE LINN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied June 28, 1983.

Plaintiff, Zavie Artis, filed a one-count products liability action in the circuit court of Cook County against the defendant, Fibre-Metal Products Co., seeking to recover damages for a spinal injury that he suffered while wearing a safety helmet manufactured by defendant. Following the trial court's granting defendant's motion for summary judgment and subsequent refusal to vacate the order, plaintiff appealed.

Plaintiff now argues that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment for defendant because (1) the trial judge improperly focused on the use of the helmet intended by the defendant manufacturer rather than on the performance expected of the product by the general public; (2) the trial judge improperly based his judgment on the "relative credibility" of the expert opinions submitted in support of and in opposition to the motion for summary judgment; and (3) the trial judge improperly failed to consider the evidence of alternative design that plaintiff submitted.

We affirm.

FACTS

Plaintiff was an employee of the Chicago Transit Authority. On March 31, 1976, he was assigned to work beneath an elevated train platform. Plaintiff wore a safety helmet manufactured by defendant. A railroad tie weighing about 50 pounds fell a distance of 14 feet and struck plaintiff on the side of the head. The blow forced plaintiff's head down, causing a flexion injury to his neck and leaving him paralyzed. Plaintiff's attending physician determined that plaintiff had suffered traumatic quadriplegia as a result of a spontaneously reduced subluxation of the cervical spine at the C5-6 level; plaintiff's paralysis was not the result of an injury to his head or skull.

On August 29, 1977, plaintiff filed a products liability suit against defendant. Plaintiff's one-count complaint alleged that the helmet, called a "Supergard," was defective because it lacked "energy absorption material for noncoronal impact"; that defendant failed to warn plaintiff of the defective condition; and that the condition of the helmet was the proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries.

The helmet plaintiff wore conformed to the standard promulgated by the American National Standards Institute for industrial safety helmets. The ANSI standard prescribes the amount of force that a helmet must withstand from a blow to the crown; there are no standards dealing with a noncoronal impact such as that suffered by plaintiff in this case. Plaintiff's expert witness, Dr. George Snively, stated in his deposition testimony that he knew of no helmet designed with the intent of protecting the neck; the function of an industrial safety helmet is to protect the wearer's head and brain.

On July 23, 1980, defendant moved for summary judgment, claiming that the helmet was not defective and therefore not unreasonably dangerous because it performed in the manner to be expected in light of its nature and intended function, which was to protect the wearer's skull; that no safety helmet in existence could have protected plaintiff's spine from injury under the circumstances of his accident; that the accident that occurred was not reasonably foreseeable and defendant was accordingly not responsible for protecting plaintiff against a blow of such magnitude; and that the danger of being injured if struck by a 50-pound railroad tie falling 14 feet is open and obvious and defendant therefore had no duty to warn plaintiff about it.

In support of its motion defendant submitted depositions of witnesses to the accident, the affidavit of one of plaintiff's physicians, and the affidavit of defendant's expert witness, Dr. James McElhany, a professor of biomedical engineering. Dr. McElhany's opinion was that the helmet worn by plaintiff had performed in the manner reasonably to be expected in light of its nature and intended function in that it "shed the blow of the railroad tie, changing what could have been a fatal impact into a glancing one, thereby successfully protecting plaintiff's brain and skull from the impact." Dr. McElhany stated further that no existing helmet could have protected against the injury that plaintiff sustained to his neck no matter what its energy-managing properties were.

Plaintiff's response to defendant's motion for summary judgment included the deposition of Dr. Snively, in which he stated that had there been "a better handling of the impact energy" by the helmet, plaintiff might have suffered a lesser injury. Dr. Snively testified that a helmet meeting a standard developed in New Zealand would have absorbed more energy from the noncoronal blow. Dr. Snively agreed with Dr. McElhany that the intended function of an industrial helmet is to protect against brain injury; that he knew of no helmet, including the New Zealand helmet, that was designed to protect the wearer's neck; and that he did not know how much reduction in the force of the blow would have been necessary to prevent plaintiff's injury.

After hearing oral arguments, the trial judge issued an order on February 27, 1981, entering summary judgment in favor of defendant and against plaintiff. Finding that the intended function of a safety helmet is to protect against head injuries, that the helmet in question had protected plaintiff from brain injury, and that no helmet is made with the intent of protecting the neck, the court held as a matter of law that the helmet was not unreasonably dangerous and that there was no duty on the part of defendant to warn plaintiff against the possibility of spinal injuries.

Plaintiff filed a "motion to vacate and for rehearing," claiming the trial court's order was erroneous as a matter of law. Plaintiff also filed several exhibits in support of his motion, including reports on experimental head protective devices and a transcript of testimony by Dr. McElhany in a New Jersey case involving a football helmet. Defendant argued in response that the order was supported by the record and that the new materials submitted could not be considered on a motion to reconsider because they ...


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