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D'olier v. General Motors Corp.





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Charles E. Freeman, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiff, Helen D'Olier, appeals from the trial court's decision granting the motions of defendants, General Motors Corporation and Fred James Buick, Inc., for a directed verdict. Plaintiff contends the trial court abused its discretion in granting defendants' motions for a directed verdict.

We affirm.

On March 11, 1981, plaintiff, who was driving, sustained various injuries in a single-vehicle accident. As a result of the accident, plaintiff, on October 7, 1982, filed this action. After various amendments to her complaint, plaintiff's case proceeded to trial as a strict liability and negligence action against General Motors and a negligence action against Fred James Buick.

In her strict liability claim against General Motors, plaintiff alleged that the steering mechanism of the vehicle in question was defective and in unreasonably dangerous condition, and that General Motors' negligence, in designing and manufacturing the steering system, was the direct and proximate cause of her accident and injuries. In her count against Fred James Buick, plaintiff alleged that it was careless and negligent in the repair, inspection, testing, and maintenance of her vehicle, and that it carelessly and negligently installed defective fluid in the steering system, all of which were the direct and proximate cause of her accident and injuries.

At trial, plaintiff's case in chief consisted of the testimony of five witnesses: the plaintiff herself, who testified as to the accident; Wesley Gass, the owner of Wes' Service, who testified as to the storage of the vehicle; plaintiff's expert witness, Herbert J. Thomiszer; defendant's expert witness, Alfred C. Drouillard; and Tony D'Angelo, service manager at Fred James Buick, who testified as to the maintenance and repair of plaintiff's car.

Plaintiff testified that on March 11, 1981, she owned a 1978 Buick Regal manufactured by defendant General Motors. She had purchased the automobile, new, from Fred James Buick in August 1978 and had it serviced there, regularly. She stated that in the 2 1/2 years prior to the accident, she neither had significant mechanical problems nor noticed any sign of potential mechanical trouble with her car. Plaintiff further testified that while driving east on Sibley Boulevard in Dolton the steering wheel of her auto locked as she changed lanes and she was unable to steer the car back to the right. As a result, her car crossed the westbound lanes and struck a signpost on the north side of the street.

Wesley Gass testified that plaintiff's car was towed from the site of the accident to the storage yard of Wes' Service. For six weeks it remained outdoors and unsheltered with its hood partially raised, which exposed the power steering mechanisms to the elements.

Plaintiff's expert witness, Hubert J. Thomiszer, concluded that somewhere in the steering system either the flow control valve or the spool valve was not functioning normally at the time of the accident. Thomiszer stated he could not dispute that the system had remained exposed to the elements for six weeks prior to the time the car was removed to Triodyne, Inc., for investigation by him. The witness admitted that his total knowledge and experience with respect to the actual design and fabrication of power steering systems were gained while employed at Triodyne, Inc., where he disassembled and inspected only two similar power steering systems.

Thomiszer testified to three "possible" causes of the alleged steering malfunction. First, he raised the possibility that particles of an O ring found on a fitting of the power steering gearbox may have entered the system causing the alleged locking of the steering. Under questioning, the witness conceded that the O ring was foreign to the design of the steering system and that it was unlikely the O ring was placed in the system during the manufacturing process.

Second, Thomiszer raised the possibility that a brass tab found on the same fitting might have entered the system, thereby causing a malfunction. Under cross-examination, however, he acknowledged that he had failed to find fragments of the tab during his disassembly of the steering gear and pump. To the contrary, he testified that the tab and O ring were firmly attached to the fitting at the time of his investigation. He further said that the brass tab, like the O ring, was foreign to the design and manufacture of the vehicle.

Finally, Thomiszer raised the possibility that the power steering fluid might have become contaminated prior to the accident, thereby causing the alleged steering malfunction. The witness also stated, on cross-examination, that more likely than not the fluid was contaminated by the elements in the six weeks subsequent to the accident and prior to his examination.

Plaintiff called as an adverse witness, Alfred C. Drouillard, General Motors' expert, who testified that the steering system could not have become bound under the physical condition that existed on the day of the accident. Drouillard further testified that it was unlikely that particles from the O ring could have entered the steering system because its placement would have caused any particles to be forced outward rather than into the system. He concluded that the particles from the O ring or the brass tab did not jam or bind the flow control valve or the spool valve of the system as Thomiszer testified possibly occurred.

Tony D'Angelo, manager of the service department at Fred James Buick, testified that plaintiff brought her car to the company for maintenance on eight occasions. On those occasions during the 2 1/2 years prior to the accident, plaintiff's car had no significant mechanical problems. The power steering fluid was checked and no problems were discovered. He further testified that any work done in the service department was written on a repair order — otherwise the mechanic performing the work would not be paid. The witness also stated that on one occasion plaintiff brought her car in to be serviced for which no repair order was written. He explained that her car door would not latch properly. Because he knew it took only a few ...

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