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11/12/96 YONG CHUL KWON v. M.T.D. PRODUCTS

November 12, 1996

YONG CHUL KWON, FATHER AND NEXT FRIEND OF SOO YEON KWON, AND YONG CHUL KWON, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
M.T.D. PRODUCTS, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Honorable Richard J. Elrod, Judge Presiding.

Released for Publication December 22, 1996.

Presiding Judge Hartman delivered the opinion of the court. Scariano and Burke, JJ., concur.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hartman

PRESIDING JUSTICE HARTMAN delivered the opinion of the court:

Plaintiff Soo Yeon Kwon (Soo), by her father and next friend Yong Chul Kwon (Kwon), appeals from the circuit court's order denying her motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict pursuant to section 1202(b) of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure. 735 ILCS 5/2-1202(b) (West 1994).

Kwon filed a products liability action against M.T.D. Products, Inc. (M.T.D.), for injuries six-year-old Soo suffered on July 21, 1987, after attempting to jump onto the back of a riding lawn mower manufactured by M.T.D. and driven by Soo's aunt, Cecilia Ford. Ford, the mower's owner, did not see Soo on the rear of the mower when she placed it in reverse. The rotating cutting blades sliced through part of Soo's left knee and foot.

Kwon's complaint alleged that the lawn mower was unreasonably dangerous in five respects: the mower's cutting blades operated when driven in reverse; the mower's design did not include an adequate blade-braking mechanism; no labels on the mower warned users of its dangerous condition and potential for injury; no instructions warned users of its dangerous condition and characteristics; and the mower was otherwise unreasonably dangerous.

As a defense to liability, M.T.D. offered evidence that it subsequently added a safety feature to its mowers after manufacturing Ford's mower. Kwon moved in limine to bar M.T.D. from mentioning this safety feature at trial. The circuit court permitted M.T.D. to introduce the evidence in order to show that the development of the feature was not feasible at the time M.T.D. manufactured Ford's mower. At the same time, however, the court prohibited M.T.D. from offering evidence that no other manufacturers used a similar safety feature, evidence that M.T.D. was a "leader in industry safety," and any other evidence addressing M.T.D.'s due care.

At trial, Kwon's expert witness, John Sevart, testified that M.T.D.'s mower was unreasonably dangerous because the mower should have had a safety feature preventing the mower's blades from operating when placed in reverse. Several other companies filed patents for similar "no-mow-in-reverse" systems before April 1980, when M.T.D. manufactured Ford's mower.

In response, M.T.D. introduced testimony that the mower was not unreasonably dangerous, and that plaintiffs misused the mower by allowing children to play around and ride on the mower. At the time of the accident, Ford's three-year-old son was riding on the mower with her, as he often did. Soo also had ridden on the mower several times before with her father.

M.T.D.'s chief engineer, Gerald Plamper, testified that the mower was reasonably safe. Several labels on the mower warned users against allowing children near the mower. Ford's mower had been altered from the time it left M.T.D.'s control, specifically, warning labels had been removed, a lever on the mower was broken, and the mower's seat had been replaced.

Plamper testified that although M.T.D. and other lawn mower manufacturers considered developing a no-mow-in-reverse feature before 1980, no one yet had established the safety or reliability of the feature. Plamper asserted he developed a no-mow-in-reverse mower for M.T.D. after April 1980, which no other manufacturer had yet developed. M.T.D. was the first manufacturer actually to produce a mower containing the no-mow-in-reverse feature.

At the close of the evidence, M.T.D. unsuccessfully moved for a directed verdict. The jury subsequently found for M.T.D. Kwon filed an unsuccessful motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. 735 ILCS 5/2-1202(b) (West 1994). Kwon appeals.

Kwon argues that the circuit court abused its discretion by admitting evidence of the no-mow-in-reverse feature and of M.T.D.'s compliance with industry safety standards. The admission of evidence is within the sound discretion of the circuit court, which will not be reversed absent clear abuse. Leonardi v. Loyola University of Chicago, 168 Ill. 2d 83, 92, 658 N.E.2d 450, 454-55, 212 Ill. Dec. 968 (1995). Evidentiary rulings will not be reversed unless the error "was substantially ...


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