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Ogg v. City of Springfield

OPINION FILED JANUARY 5, 1984.

RUSSELL OGG, SPECIAL ADM'R OF THE ESTATE OF JANA LOUISE WELCH, DECEASED, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE AND CROSS-APPELLANT,

v.

THE CITY OF SPRINGFIELD ET AL., DEFENDANTS — (THE CITY OF SPRINGFIELD, DEFENDANT-COUNTERPLAINTIFF-COUNTERDEFENDANT AND THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE AND CROSS-APPELLEE; COAST CATAMARAN CORPORATION ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND COUNTERDEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS AND CROSS-APPELLEES; JOHN HOMIER, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT; PHILIP HENRICI, COUNTERPLAINTIFF AND THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT-APPELLEE AND CROSS-APPELLANT; JAMES HENNEBERRY, COUNTERDEFENDANT).



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Sangamon County; the Hon. Richard J. Cadagin, Judge, presiding.

PRESIDING JUSTICE MILLS DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

A sailboat accident on Lake Springfield.

Two deaths.

A products liability suit against the sailboat's manufacturer.

A jury verdict for the plaintiffs.

We affirm.

I. THE FACTS

A. THE ACCIDENT

On a Sunday afternoon in the middle of August, Philip Henrici, Jana Welch, and Donna Ballweg set out sailing on Lake Springfield in a Hobie Cat catamaran. Henrici was controlling the main sail and manning the tiller. Welch was operating the jib sail. The trio sailed south on the lake and then came about and headed north. Because the center channel of the lake was crowded with power boats and skiers, Henrici guided the Hobie Cat through the water along the shore.

Suddenly, the rear of the Hobie Cat dipped down momentarily and Henrici received a tremendous electrical shock. Then the main sail's boom fell, hit him on the right arm and came to rest on the tiller crossbar which connected the two rudders. Henrici crawled forward to where Welch and Ballweg were sitting and started to haul the main sail the rest of the way down. As he did so, he looked up and saw that the mast of the Hobie Cat had become entangled in some low hanging power lines strung across the lake. The boat rocked, the mast touched the lines, and bright blue bubbles rose from the water around the boat.

The trio remained calm. Several persons in a passing power boat stopped and offered their assistance. At first, Henrici declined but then he agreed to allow them to tow the Hobie Cat away from the power lines. But before the would-be rescuers could throw Henrici a tow rope, the waves began to rock the sailboat and the mast struck the power lines several times. Each time the mast hit the lines, the sailboat shuddered as the electricity passed through it and bright blue flames erupted from the mast and yellow flames shot out of both ends of the boat. Flames began rolling out from beneath the center of the boat.

Everyone on both boats became very excited and began screaming. Someone yelled for the trio to jump into the water. In an apparent panic, Ballweg jumped off the front of the Hobie Cat and Welch jumped off the back. Henrici remained on the sailboat and threw Ballweg a life jacket. Welch began swimming toward the power boat. The Hobie Cat rocked and its mast hit the power lines. The electricity traveled through the boat and into the water. Both girls went limp and slipped beneath the water.

Henrici was rescued and taken to a hospital. The bodies of the girls were later recovered by divers. The coroner's report was that the cause of their death was electrocution.

B. THE HOBIE CAT

The sailboat the trio was sailing the day of the accident was a Hobie Cat 16 catamaran, manufactured by Coast Catamaran Corporation, a subsidiary of Coleman Company, Inc. The Hobie Cat is a twin-hulled sailboat. On top of the two hulls and connecting them together is a square aluminum frame. A canvas, trampoline-type surface — commonly called a wing — is stretched across the aluminum frame. The entire assembly is supported by four aluminum posts which run down into the hulls.

Two parallel rudders, connected by an aluminum tiller crossbar, are used to steer the Hobie Cat. Each rudder is capped with an aluminum tiller head, which is connected to an aluminum tiller which, in turn, is connected to either end of the tiller crossbar. A long hiking stick is attached to the center of the tiller crossbar, thereby enabling the person operating the rudders to sit on either side of the wing.

An aluminum mast rises from the front of the aluminum frame and is attached to the boat at a metal mast base. The Hobie Cat has two sails — a main sail in the rear and a jib sail in the front. The main sail is connected along its bottom to an aluminum boom and the boom attaches at a right angle to the mast at a hinged joint. A warning sticker on the mast reads:

"Caution

Aluminum mast and other metal components conduct electricity. Coming in contact and/or near an electrical power line can cause serious injury or death! Stay away from overhead electrical power lines when sailing and/or launching this boat."

C. THE PROCEDURE BELOW

(Note: Due to the complex nature of the procedure below and in the interest of brevity, only the most general procedural steps will be outlined here. All other relevant procedural facts will be discussed in the analysis of the issues.)

Acting as special administrator of Jana Welch's estate, her father, Russell Ogg, brought suit against Coleman Company, Inc., and the city of Springfield. He later amended his complaint to add Coast Catamaran Corporation as a defendant. He alleged that the city had committed several negligent and wilful and wanton acts with regard to the maintenance of the power lines over Lake Springfield. His claims against Coast and Coleman were based on his allegations that the Hobie Cat was manufactured and distributed in an unreasonably dangerous condition. He alleged that the design of the sailboat using aluminum components allowed electricity entering the mast to travel through the boat and into the water, thereby endangering persons in the water.

The city filed a third-party complaint against Henrici and he in turn filed a claim against both the city and Coast. In his countercomplaint, Henrici alleged that witnessing the deaths of the two girls had caused him great mental and emotional anguish, resulting in physical illness. Before the accident, Henrici had suffered from Crohn's disease, necessitating surgery. He claimed that the stress he suffered as a result of the accident caused the worsening of his condition.

Coast and Coleman filed counterclaims against the city seeking contribution for the amount of any judgment entered against them in favor of Ogg. They also filed cross-claims against Henrici seeking the same. Henrici then filed a counterclaim against Coleman. The trial judge later granted Henrici's motion to dismiss Coast and Coleman's cross-claims.

A trial was held and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ogg for $100,000 and Henrici for $175,000. The jury also found that Coast and Coleman had not acted wilfully and wantonly and therefore did not assess any award against them for punitive damages. The trial judge later granted the city's motion for a judgment n.o.v. as to Coast and Coleman's claims for contributions.

After several unsuccessful post-trial motions by each of the parties, Coast and Coleman appealed seeking a new trial on the issue of liability, and Ogg and Henrici cross-appealed seeking a new trial on their claims for punitive damages.

II. COAST AND COLEMAN'S APPEAL

A. COLEMAN'S LIABILITY

1. PARENT COMPANY LIABILITY

In the first issue on appeal, Coleman argues that the judgments entered against it must be reversed because the plaintiffs, Ogg and Henrici, failed to prove that it was the manufacturer of the Hobie Cat and therefore it is under no ...


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