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Walker v. Maxwell City





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Brian L. Crowe, JUSTICE HARTMAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Donald Reeves sustained serious facial and brain injuries following a collision between his motorcycle and an automobile. He wore a motorcycle safety helmet at the time of the accident, which took place in the village of Oak Lawn. The conservator of his estate brought a products liability action against defendants Maxwell City, Inc., the retailer of the helmet, and Seaway Importing Co./Wessex, Inc., the importer-wholesaler, seeking recovery for injuries he allegedly incurred as a result of helmet's defects. The manufacturer of the helmet, Daiei Kogyo, of Japan, went out of business and was dismissed from the suit. Plaintiff appeals the jury verdict for defendants.

The principal issues raised on appeal include whether: the verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence; and plaintiff was prejudiced by the purported refusal of the circuit court to allow "destructive" testing of the helmet.

We affirm for the reasons which follow.

On April 15, 1971, the date of the accident, and at the time of the occurrence, Reeves was wearing a Daiei Kogyo model TH-12 motorcycle helmet. The investigating police officer, James Cotter, stated that he found Reeves lying on the ground beside his motorcycle, wearing a red helmet. There were large amounts of blood around Reeves' facial area. The passenger of the vehicle informed Cotter that Reeves hit the windshield support on the right side of the automobile with his head. Cotter noticed no external damage to the helmet. He saw a round dent on the right windshield support.

Reeves was transported to Christ Community Hospital. The examining physician there, Dr. Shu-Yung-Wang, found him in a comatose condition. His traumatic bone injuries and cuts were localized in the area of his jaw and 19 of his teeth were dislodged or broken. There was no tearing, laceration or fracture of any of the area of Reeves' head that was covered by the helmet. Two neurosurgeons, Dr. George Bryar and Dr. Sherman Kaplitz, found that Reeves suffered a severe bruising of the brain, a basal skull fracture, and multiple fractures of his face and jaw bone. Dr. Bryar and Dr. Marshall Matz, a neurosurgeon testifying for defendants, testified that the "sudden stopping" of the head may cause severe brain damage even without a direct blow to the head or penetration of the skull. The sudden stopping of the skull causes the brain, which is still in motion, to strike against the skull's inner surfaces. This is called a deceleration injury. A blunt injury even to the chin may be transmitted to the brain because the mandible is connected to the skull by means of the temporomandibular joint, which is one of the sidewalls of the brain cavity. Dr. Matz indicated that his review of Reeves' records revealed none of the signs that might be seen if there had been a direct injury to the head area covered by the helmet. He was of the opinion that the impact to Reeves' face was transmitted along the jawbone to the skull, causing a basal skull fracture, and that the force was from below upward. If the blow is to the face, no amount of padding at the top of the head can reduce the deceleration injury.

Dr. George Snively, M.D., director of research of the Snell Foundation (Snell), was of the opinion that the helmet did not come "into play" during the accident. The helmet, however, would have to be disassembled and the liner inspected to have a "complete picture." James Albert Newman, Ph.D., an engineer, testified that the helmet did not appear to have sustained any severe impact. Plaintiff's expert, Lee Rose, a design engineer, believed that the helmet incurred multiple hits during the crash.

The Snell Foundation and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) both establish safety standards for motorcycle helmets. Compliance with these standards is voluntary. Snell standards are generally regarded as more stringent than ANSI's. At the time it was manufactured in the late 1960's, the "TH-12" model helmet worn by Reeves was in compliance with both the Snell and ANSI standards. Reeves' helmet, however, did not meet the Snell requirements when they were upgraded in 1970. In particular, it did not satisfy the requirements measuring a helmet's ability to protect against impact. Reeves purchased the helmet in 1971. There were no standards then regulating impact protection to the facial region.

Newman testified that the outer shell on Reeves' helmet was composed of a fiberglass resin composite. Most helmets in 1970-71 were made of plastic. Fiberglass has generally been regarded as superior. The next layer in Reeves' helmet was composed of expanded polystyrene beads foam, which reflected the most advanced technology of helmetry in 1971. This foam was an "appropriate material" for use in a liner. Its function was to absorb the energy of the impact.

The helmet in question provided no facial protection. Dr. Richard Schultz, who testified on behalf of plaintiff, stated a helmet with a face guard would have absorbed a good deal of impact force, minimized the forces transmitted into the skull, and reduced the amount of brain damage.

Dr. Snively stated that to do an "optimal job" a helmet must be positioned in front of what is to be protected, namely, the head or nose. As a practicing physician, he would recommend that people protect their eyes and face when motorcycle riding. Newman recommended facial protection for motorcycle helmets. Rose observed that the technology was available to place a "chin bar" on motorcycle helmets in the late 1960's. The cost of adding a chin bar would have been "pennies."

The experts disagreed as to whether the subject helmet was reasonably safe. Defendants' expert, Newman, believed that on April 15, 1971, Reeves' helmet was reasonably capable of providing safe impact protection and in no way "unreasonably dangerous for its intended purpose." Rose believed that the helmet was inherently dangerous for its intended purpose. The helmet was reasonably safe according to Dr. Snively.


• 1 Plaintiff asserts that the circuit court erred in denying his motions for a directed verdict, judgment n.o.v. and new trial. He observes that it is foreseeable for a motorcycle helmet to be called upon to protect the head of a motorcyclist. Because the helmet was not equipped with facial protection and did not meet the impact requirements set by the Snell Foundation in 1970, plaintiff argues the helmet failed to protect him adequately.

A manufacturer is not under a duty to design a product which is totally incapable of injuring those who foreseeably come into contact with the product. (Coney v. J.L.G. Industries, Inc. (1983), 97 Ill.2d 104.) To succeed on a strict liability theory, a plaintiff must prove, inter alia, that the injury resulted from a condition of the product and that the condition was an unreasonably dangerous one. (Suvada v. White Motor Co. (1965), 32 Ill.2d 612, 210 N.E.2d 182.) Products are defective when they fail to perform in the manner reasonably to be expected in light of their nature and intended function. (Dunham v. Vaughan & Bushnell Manufacturing Co. (1969), 42 Ill.2d 339, 342, 247 N.E.2d 401.) In Illinois, injuries are not compensable in products liability cases if they are caused by those inherent propensities of a product which are obvious to all who come into contact with them. (Hunt v. Blasius (1978), 74 Ill.2d 203, 211, 384 N.E.2d 368; compare Annot., 95 A.L.R.3d 1066 (1979); see also Genaust v. Illinois Power Co. (1976), 62 Ill.2d 456, 467, 343 N.E.2d 465.) Strict liability applies only when the product is "dangerous to an extent ...

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