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Collins v. Interroyal Corp.

OPINION FILED JUNE 29, 1984.

FRANCES COLLINS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

INTERROYAL CORPORATION ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Sheldon L. JUSTICE MCNAMARA DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Plaintiff, Frances Collins, brought this action for personal injuries sustained when a stool, defectively designed and manufactured by defendant Interroyal Corporation and distributed by defendant Killian Corporation, collapsed under her. A jury returned a verdict awarding plaintiff $200,000 compensatory damages against both defendants and $100,000.50 punitive damages against Interroyal. The trial court denied post-trial motions and entered judgment on the verdict. Both defendants appeal.

In counts I and II of her complaint, strict liability counts against Interroyal and Killian respectively, plaintiff alleged that the design of the adjustable leg connection mechanism was an unreasonably dangerous and defective condition because it failed to provide a reliable locking device that would prevent the leg adjustment screw from falling out, thus permitting the stool to collapse. Plaintiff charged that her injuries were caused by this unreasonably dangerous and defective condition. Count III charged wilful and wanton conduct by Interroyal in the design, manufacture, sale and distribution of the stool in question.

Interroyal, a designer and manufacturer of industrial stools since 1946, designed its model 515 adjustable height stool to meet varying demands for seat height. The stool incorporated a telescopic leg extension for height adjustment which allegedly provides "positive locking." Between 1968 and 1977, Interroyal designed and manufactured the 515 model stool with three different leg adjustment connector mechanisms. The first connector mechanism, employed at least since 1968, consisted of a self-tapping screw passing through one wall of the leg and the wall of the leg extension, with a star washer underneath the head of the screw. The screw in this single-wall construction design, referred to as design A, also served as a structural support component for the stool.

In September 1972, in connection with a lawsuit entitled Mix v. Interroyal, Herbert Painter of Snyder Research Laboratory, a consulting engineering firm, was retained on behalf of Interroyal's interests in that suit. Painter, who testified for plaintiff in this suit, prepared a report based upon his evaluation of the design of an Interroyal single-wall model stool. The stool he examined was an exemplar of the one on which the Mix plaintiff had been injured when the leg of the stool collapsed. In Painter's opinion, the single-wall model stool was defective because the self-tapping screw could become loose and fall out from intermittent loading and from vibration caused by the dragging of the stool across a floor, both ordinary uses of the stool. Painter's Mix report was given to Interroyal in April 1973.

An engineering change order dated June 15, 1973, evidenced the second connection mechanism design incorporated in the 515 stool. This design employed a longer screw passing through both walls of the stool leg. The reason for this new double-wall construction, also referred to as design B, was to strengthen the union of the leg extension to frame assembly.

In March 1977, Interroyal instituted another design change in its 515 adjustable stool connector mechanism. Design C added a nut and bolt to the end of the screw. In May 1977, maintenance and assembly instructions were attached to all the stools.

Each design change was embodied in an engineering change order which stated the reason for the change and was signed by authorized Interroyal executives. The engineering change order discussed the disposition of stock on hand. The June 1973 order had a series of typed dashes, which meant that stock on hand was to be used up rather than reworked. The December 1973 order was blank, while the 1977 order required rework of the old stock.

Haig Dadourian, vice-president of Interroyal, testified as an adverse witness that he was unaware of any customer complaints and that the design changes were not made because of customer complaints. Dadourian did not know why the nut and bolt design was not implemented in June 1973. The effective dates on the engineering change orders did not mean that on that date the revisions actually went into effect, but rather meant that necessary steps to implement the changes should begin.

Donald Beutlespacher was plant engineer, maintenance superintendent and safety committeeman for Midwest American Dental, plaintiff's employer. In February 1974, he requisitioned the purchase of 85 Interroyal adjustable stools from Killian. Killian shipped 15 stools from its own stock, while Interroyal furnished the additional 70 stools. Beutlespacher testified that all 85 stools were equipped with the same leg construction design. No instructions or warnings accompanied these design A stools. The stools were assembled at a uniform height and were sent to departments according to need. The control area where plaintiff worked was a new department in March 1974.

On December 19, 1974, at 6:45 a.m., plaintiff pulled a stool over and sat on it. The stool immediately collapsed, causing her to fall to the floor. As she fell, her left hip struck a metal conveyor behind her. She experienced severe pain and was taken to a hospital. Immediately after the accident, plaintiff and Thomas Parala, a first aid employee of Midwest, saw a stool with a metal back lying on the floor with one of its adjustable leg extensions telescoped up into the stationary leg portion of the stool.

Diane Blazina Creed testified for the defense that she was 10 feet from plaintiff at the time of the accident. Creed saw plaintiff sitting on a stool with a wooden back. Creed stated that when plaintiff fell, the wooden back separated from the chair. Creed did not know whether one of the stool legs had collapsed. Creed had stated at a deposition that she had worked the afternoon shift on the day in question. Creed also testified that Barbara Spiller witnessed the accident, but Spiller testified that she was home ill the day of the accident. Spiller stated that none of the four stools in that control area had wooden backs. Both Spiller and plaintiff testified that all stools in the control area were similar in appearance to exhibit No. 17, the Interroyal single-wall model design.

Sue Klasek testified for the defense that she saw plaintiff walk around a router file while carrying or dragging a stool. Plaintiff then fell slowly to the ground. Klasek's view was blocked so that she could not see if plaintiff was sitting on a stool or whether a stool fell. Klasek could not remember whether she saw a stool on the ground near plaintiff.

Shortly after the incident, a stool identified as the one on which plaintiff was injured was delivered to Beutlespacher's office. Beutlespacher testified that the stool, an Interroyal single-wall model design, had a collapsed leg due to a missing screw and that the metal back was still attached. Killian referred Beutlespacher to Fred Frey, then Interroyal's manager of product engineering. Pursuant to Frey's instructions, Beutlespacher sent the stool to Frey at Interroyal to be replaced at no charge along with a memo reiterating these instructions. To prevent further problems with the remaining stools, Frey instructed Beutlespacher to drill the leg adjustment holes through the other side of the leg, to insert machine screws through both holes, and then place a nut and star washer on the end of the screw.

In answer to an interrogatory requesting the names of each person in possession of the stool after the accident, Interroyal listed Beutlespacher, then George Funk, Frey's successor, and then Triodyne, Inc., employer of defendant's expert witness, Ralph Barnett. In response to plaintiff's request for the stool at trial, defendants presented the stool's parts, exhibit No. 17, and stool screws, exhibit No. 18. At ...


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