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Gilbertson v. Rolscreen Co.





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County; the Hon. John C. Hughes, Judge, presiding.


In this appeal, plaintiff Shirley Gilbertson alleges that defendant, Rolscreen Company (hereinafter Rolscreen), should be held strictly liable in tort for injuries to the plaintiff allegedly caused by the unreasonably dangerous condition of a window manufactured by Pella Doors & Windows, a subsidiary of Rolscreen.

On October 18, 1981, plaintiff, while a patient in the psychiatric ward of Highland Park Hospital in Highland Park jumped out the window of her fourth-floor room. She suffered serious injuries. Plaintiff sued Highland Park Hospital and numerous other parties seeking damages resulting from her fall. All party defendants, with the exception of Rolscreen, reached a settlement with the plaintiffs, and the claims against those defendants were dismissed.

The evidence at trial revealed the following facts. At the time of plaintiff's injury, Highland Park Hospital accepted only voluntary patients. Plaintiff testified that she admitted herself to the psychiatric ward of Highland Park Hospital in September 1981. On October 18, 1981, while in her room on the fourth floor, she kicked open the window of her room and then pushed it fully open with her hand. She took a pillow, held it in front of her, and jumped out of the window.

Dr. Eugene Trager, plaintiff's psychiatrist, testified that when plaintiff was admitted to the psychiatric ward of Highland Park Hospital, she was diagnosed as having a schizophrenia schizo-affective type of mental disorder. He had talked to plaintiff earlier in the day of October 18, 1981. At that time, she appeared to be getting better and had been less depressed and withdrawn than in the prior several days.

Trager examined plaintiff following her fall. He testified that plaintiff's act of jumping from her window was an attempt to escape the hospital, not a suicide attempt, and that, at that time, she did not comprehend the danger of her act. He did state that he did not know plaintiff's underlying motivation for jumping. However, he also felt that plaintiff could appreciate cause and effect relationships and thought that she knew that if she fell out of the window, she would get hurt.

The psychiatric ward of Highland Park Hospital was constructed in 1977-78. The project architects, Perkins & Will, prepared the specifications for the construction. Based on the architects' drawings, general contractors submitted bids for the contract to build the project. In this case, the bid of Powers Contracting was accepted. Powers Contracting then reached an agreement with Pella Windows & Doors (hereinafter Pella), a wholly owned subsidiary of Rolscreen, to supply the windows for the construction of this psychiatric ward. Pella proceeded to prepare "shop drawings," i.e., drawings of the design they proposed to supply for the project, and sent them to Perkins & Will. Perkins & Will approved the design and sent the drawings to the general contractor, Powers Contracting. Perkins & Will indicated on those drawings that life-safety limiting stops were to be installed. Despite this notation on the drawings, there was no evidence introduced to show that the general contractor communicated this requirement to Pella in its purchase order. In fact, the only limited-opening hardware Pella manufactures is not intended to be used for security purposes.

It is conceded by defendant that it had knowledge that these windows were to be used in a psychiatric ward. Pella manufactures only wooden windows designed for residential or small commercial uses. There was testimony that Pella had sold windows for installation in psychiatric institutions previously and that security was insured not through the window design, but rather by the addition of security screens. Pella neither manufactures nor installs such screens. It is undisputed that the hospital did have security screens installed on the windows of two of the rooms in the psychiatric ward, though numerous other rooms in the ward did not have them.

Subsequent to the supply and installation of the windows, there is no evidence that Pella was contacted by the architects regarding any lack of life-safety limiting devices, though one of the employees of the architectural firm testified it was his responsibility to determine if the construction was in conformity with the architects' plan and specifications. He stated that from a visual inspection the windows appeared to be in conformity. While no life-safety limiting devices were attached to these Pella windows when installed, both sides agree Highland Park Hospital subsequently acted to alter the windows. The hospital attached metal brackets over the latch mechanism to preclude the opening of the window through release of the latch device. Further, the hospital removed the handle to the crank mechanism of the window to prevent the ordinary means of opening the window.

As mentioned, two rooms in the ward were complete with security screens. A hospital psychiatrist testified those rooms were for violent, actively agitated patients. Plaintiff's psychiatrist, after examining her, chose not to place her in one of those rooms but, rather, based upon her condition, selected a less restrictive environment. It was from that room that plaintiff forced open the window at issue and then jumped.

At the conclusion of the plaintiffs' case in chief, the trial judge granted Rolscreen's motion for a directed verdict on the ground that plaintiff's act of jumping out of the window was the sole proximate cause of her injuries even if all the plaintiffs' allegations regarding Rolscreen's windows being unreasonably dangerous were true.

On appeal plaintiff raises two issues: (1) whether plaintiff's act in jumping out of the window of her room in the psychiatric ward was the sole proximate cause of her injuries as a matter of law, and (2) whether the trial court ruled correctly that standards for windows in psychiatric units being constructed with Federal funding were inadmissible.

• 1, 2 In directing a verdict for the defendant on the issue of proximate cause, the trial court was under a duty to consider all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. (Pedrick v. Peoria & Eastern R.R. Co. (1967), 37 Ill.2d 494.) The evidence must favor the movant to such a degree that no contrary verdict could possibly be reached. (Pedrick v. Peoria & Eastern R.R. Co. (1967), 37 Ill.2d 494.) At issue was whether the failure to provide the life-safety devices to prevent the window from opening more than 15 degrees constituted an unreasonably dangerous condition that existed at the time it left Pella's control. It is plaintiff's burden to demonstrate this and to show that such unreasonably dangerous condition was the proximate cause of plaintiff's harm. Dugan v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. (1983), 113 Ill. App.3d 740, 744.

Plaintiff's claim in this case is based on the theory that strict liability should be imposed upon the defendant because the window was a defective product. In opposition, the defendant first supports the ruling of the trial court by claiming that the window was not a product but an indivisible component part of the hospital structure and, therefore, the theory of strict liability was not applicable. Since it does not affect the result in this ...

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