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05/01/89 John Darrill Connelly, v. General Motors Corporation

May 1, 1989





540 N.E.2d 370, 184 Ill. App. 3d 378, 132 Ill. Dec. 630 1989.IL.637

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Anthony S. Bosco, Judge, presiding.


JUSTICE QUINLAN* delivered the opinion of the court. BUCKLEY and O'CONNOR, JJ., concur.


The plaintiff, John Connelly, sued the defendant, General Motors Corporation, alleging that the defendant was strictly liable for injuries that plaintiff had sustained in an automobile accident. The accident occurred when the right rear tire of a 1969 General Motors Buick Opel Kadett Model 1900 station wagon blew out, causing the vehicle to leave the road and flip over twice, during which time the plaintiff was thrown from the car. The plaintiff alleged that defendant was strictly liable for the defective design of its vehicle and for failure to warn of a dangerous condition. The trial jury returned a verdict for plaintiff on both of his strict liability counts and awarded him $5 million, which was reduced by the amount the plaintiff had received from a settlement with Uniroyal, the tire manufacturer. General Motors now appeals the verdict for plaintiff to this court. We affirm.

In late October 1970, plaintiff, a 19-year-old University of Chicago student, drove to California with four other university students. Plaintiff borrowed his father's car for the trip, a 1969 Opel Kadett Model 1900 station wagon (Model 1900). En route to California, the students stopped at a gas station and had the tires on the station wagon rotated because the front tires were more worn than the back tires. The plaintiff then instructed the attendant to inflate the back tires to 32 pounds per square inch (psi), in accordance with directions in the owner's manual for the car. The plaintiff also noted at that time that the owner's manual recommended a maximum load of 900 pounds for the vehicle. It was estimated that the combined weight of the five students and their luggage was 860 pounds. Michael Rosin, one of the students, testified that the only other incident occurring on the way to California was when the station wagon was driven for a short time on a gravel road, although plaintiff did not remember driving on such a road.

When the students arrived in California, they unloaded the station wagon. They drove the unloaded vehicle while in California and at certain times the station wagon may have carried as many as seven people. The students stayed in California for several days and then began their return to Chicago. Plaintiff testified that shortly before the accident, the students gave a ride to a hitchhiker, who was in the car for approximately four to five hours. However neither Michael Rosin nor Jean Howard, another student who testified at trial, remembered picking up a hitchhiker. On the way to Chicago, the plaintiff testified that they stopped briefly in Colorado and dropped off the hitchhiker. The students then resumed their journey. The posted speed limit was 70 miles per hour and the students were driving approximately 75 miles per hour when the blow out occurred. There was no evidence that the station wagon had hit or run over any objects in the road just before the blow out. Plaintiff suffered severe injuries when he was thrown from the car and, as a result of those injuries, the plaintiff was rendered a paraplegic.

Thereafter, the plaintiff filed suit against General Motors Corporation, alleging that the defendant was strictly liable for the defective design of the Model 1900 because the Model 1900 had an inadequate and dangerous tire reserve load percentage. Plaintiff further alleged that the defendant was strictly liable for failing to warn that overloading the Model 1900 would lead to a tire blow out. *fn1

The tire on the vehicle here had 18,830 miles on it and was the car's original tire. Information was stamped on the sidewall of the tire which said that the tire had a maximum load capacity of 880 pounds and the owner's manual recommended inflation of the rear tires to 32 psi. The tire was manufactured by Uniroyal at its Belgium plant in June 1969 and was installed on the Opel Kadett Model 1900 in Opel's Belgium plant. Also, Opel was a wholly owned subsidiary of the defendant General Motors.

The relevant testimony at trial was as follows. Plaintiff presented two witnesses who were qualified as experts in tire failure. The first witness, Ronald Schoonover, testified that in his opinion the tire blow out on plaintiff's Opel Kadett station wagon was due to an adhesion failure in the tire combined with vehicle overload. Schoonover stated that the tire was not worn out, nor did the tire show any evidence of impact failure. Schoonover explained that adhesion problems were typical in tires manufactured at that time, so manufacturers compensated for the adhesion problems by building a tire reserve load into the tires, which provided the tires with a percentage of extra strength. The tires, then, with this extra strength, would wear out before a blow out due to adhesion problems could occur. Schoonover said that the higher the percentage of tire reserve load, the safer the load margin.

Schoonover testified that the Model 1900 had a tire reserve load safety margin of 2%, basing this 2% figure on information that defendant itself had submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which was then published in a booklet entitled "Performance Data For New Passenger Cars and Motorcycles." He said the figure determined the amount of overload a tire could safely endure. Schoonover believed that a 2% margin of safety was inadequate and unreasonably dangerous for the Model 1900 since the Model 1900 was a station wagon and was specifically designed to transport larger loads than regular-sized cars. Schoonover noted that other tires were available to the defendant at the time the Model 1900s were manufactured that provided a greater tire reserve load margin of safety and which also fit the rims on the Model 1900. Those tires, he stated, could have been used on the Model 1900 without requiring the defendant to alter the Model 1900's design.

John Stilson also testified for the plaintiff as an expert witness. Stilson's opinion was that the tire here blew out due to overloading, which precipitated an adhesion defect in the tire. Stilson found nothing in the owner's manual which warned that exceeding the 900-pound maximum weight on the vehicle would cause premature failure of the tires. Stilson said that the defendant was aware of the dangers in overloading the Model 1900, because within two months after plaintiff's car had been manufactured, the defendant was required by Federal regulations to put a warning on all cars it manufactured regarding vehicle overload.

Stilson believed that the 2% tire reserve load safety margin on the defendant's Model 1900 was unreasonably dangerous, and he also stated that he knew there were other tires available to defendant at that time which fit the rim of the vehicle as designed and provided a higher margin of safety. In addition, Stilson observed that the tire used on the Model 1900 was used on all of defendant's Opel vehicles, but that it provided a higher tire reserve load safety margin on those vehicles because they weighed less than the Model 1900. Stilson found no signs of external road impact on the tire and disagreed with the defendant's experts, who believed that the tire failed because it encountered an object in the road.

The defendant then presented three expert witnesses of its own. Sjirk VanderBurg, defendant's first expert, was not a tire-failure expert, but had been the director of research and development for Uniroyal when the tire in this case was manufactured. VanderBurg said that when a tire manufacturer wanted to build a tire which would have an 880-pound load capacity at 32 psi, the manufacturer would design the tire so that it could be inflated to 8 to 10 times its normal inflation pressure when it had no weight on it. The manufacturer would then perform tests on the tires. In the first test, the tire was inflated to 36 psi and run at 37 1/2 miles per hour for 24 hours, with a load of 880 pounds. Every 24 hours, for 120 hours thereafter, the load was ...

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