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Stambaugh v. International Harvester Co.

OPINION FILED APRIL 4, 1984.

MERLIN C. STAMBAUGH

v.

INTERNATIONAL HARVESTER COMPANY, APPELLANT (LOUISA STAMBAUGH, SPECIAL ADM'R, APPELLEE).



Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Fifth District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County, the Hons. William B. Starnes and Richard P. Goldenhersh, Judges, presiding.

JUSTICE WARD DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied June 29, 1984.

The plaintiff, Merlin C. Stambaugh, brought a product liability action against International Harvester Company (Harvester), seeking damages for injuries received on May 17, 1975. A jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff of $650,000 in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages. The circuit court of St. Clair County ordered a remittitur in the punitive damages award to $7,500,000 and entered judgment in the amount of $8,150,000. The appellate court further reduced the punitive damages to $650,000 and affirmed the balance of the judgment. (106 Ill. App.3d 1.) We granted the defendant's petition for leave to appeal. 87 Ill.2d R. 315.

May 17, 1975, was an unseasonably warm day. The plaintiff, a farmer in Brown County, spent the morning discing a field with his model 706 Harvester tractor. As he prepared to return home for lunch, he noticed gasoline spurting out of the gasoline cap. Leaving the engine running, he dismounted from the tractor. He testified that the cap "just blew up" into the air and that gasoline "shot up" and ignited. Stambaugh was sprayed with the ignited gasoline and suffered burns. After removing his burning clothing, he walked home and his wife took him to Blessing Hospital in Quincy. Dr. Merle F. Crossland testified that he debrided and dressed the plaintiff's burns at the hospital. He recommended that Stambaugh enter the burn unit at a hospital in Springfield, but the plaintiff chose to remain at the Quincy hospital. It was determined there that the plaintiff had sustained burns on 45% of his body, including his back, neck, head, arms and hands. The burns were mainly of second degree with small areas of third-degree burns. The burns healed without grafting, but with some scarring. The plaintiff underwent daily hydrotherapy and debridement at the hospital. He was released after four weeks and last consulted a doctor for his burn injuries on October 3, 1975. The plaintiff's total medical expenses were less than $8,000.

The plaintiff testified that he was unable to farm or to do carpentry work for a year and a half following the accident, but he did not offer any evidence of loss of earnings.

The tractor was manufactured by the defendant in 1963. The plaintiff bought it in 1971 as a used tractor. Immediately prior to his purchase, the tractor had been overhauled after 1,700 hours of use. The tractor was repaired by the plaintiff following the fire by replacing the damaged parts. No modification of design was made. At the time of trial the restored tractor had been operated for 872 hours.

In December of 1976, the plaintiff suffered what appears to have been a minor stroke and was hospitalized for a week. His physician, Dr. Henry C. Zingher, testified that it was his opinion that the plaintiff's stroke was caused, in part, by his tractor-fire experience.

The plaintiff filed a complaint in two counts in the circuit court of St. Clair County. The first count, based on strict liability, alleged that the plaintiff's injuries were a result of the defendant's having manufactured the plaintiff's tractor with a defective and unreasonably dangerous condition, viz, a gasoline cap inadequate to permit full ventilation of vapor pressure. The second count sought punitive damages, alleging that Harvester had recklessly manufactured the tractor with "wilful and wanton malicious acts of misconduct." Harvester, the complaint alleged, knew of the dangerous condition, but failed to take corrective measures. The jury returned a verdict of $650,000 in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages. The compensatory damage award was not broken into items of damage by the jury. The circuit court entered judgment on the compensatory damages award, but, holding "that the verdict shocks the conscience of the court," remitted the punitive damages award by 50%. The appellate court also upheld the compensatory damages award but observed that it "approached the outer limits of a permissible verdict." The appellate court further reduced the punitive damages award to $650,000.

The defendant contends that its motion to transfer venue was erroneously denied; that the plaintiff's closing argument to the jury was highly prejudicial and produced a verdict based on passion and prejudice; that the plaintiff should not have been allowed to introduce evidence concerning other accidents involving different tractor models and different injuries; that it was deprived of a fair trial by the jury's deliberating in a courtroom which contained the plaintiff's and the court's trial notes, information concerning the defendant's insurance coverage, and other materials not in evidence; and that the punitive damage award was unsupported by evidence of wilful and wanton conduct.

The defendant made a pretrial motion to transfer venue out of St. Clair County on the ground that venue was not proper in that county. The motion was denied. The defendant's later motion for a change of venue to another judge within the county on the ground of prejudice was allowed. (See Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 110, par. 501.) The defendant's first venue motion was renewed in its post-trial motion and was denied. The defendant says that its motion to transfer venue out of St. Clair County should have been allowed and it asks that we reverse the judgment and remand for a new trial.

Section 5 of the Civil Practice Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 110, par. 5), which is now section 2-101 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110, par. 2-101), which pertains to venue generally, in part provided:

"Except as otherwise provided in this Act, every action must be commenced (a) in the county of residence of any defendant who is joined in good faith and with probable cause for the purpose of obtaining a judgment against him and not solely for the purpose of fixing venue in that county, or (b) in the county in which the transaction or some part thereof occurred out of which the cause of action arose."

Section 6(1) of the Civil Practice Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 110, par. 6(1)), which is now section 2-102(a) of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110, par. 2-102(a)), defined the residence of corporations for the purpose of venue:

"Any private corporation or railroad or bridge company, organized under the laws of this State, and any foreign corporation authorized to transact business in this State is a resident of any county in which it has its registered office or other office or is doing business. A foreign corporation not authorized to transact business in this State is a nonresident of this State."

The plaintiff's injury was sustained in the county of his residence, Brown County. The defendant, a Delaware corporation authorized to transact business in this State, has its international headquarters and its registered office in Cook County. International Harvester does not have an office in St. Clair County. In order, therefore, for venue to be proper, the defendant must be "doing business" in St. Clair County within the meaning of the venue statutes. (We would note parenthetically that in a different case (International Harvester v. Goldenhersh (1981), 86 Ill.2d 366), the question of whether International Harvester was doing business in St. Clair County was raised. In that case, International Harvester sought issuance of a writ of mandamus to transfer the case to a different county on the ground of improper venue or an erroneous forum non conveniens ruling by the trial court. This court held that ...


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