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LAWRENCE v. BRIDGESTONE/FIRESTONE

April 24, 1997

TIMOTHY LAWRENCE and PAMELA LAWRENCE, Plaintiffs,
v.
BRIDGESTONE/FIRESTONE, INC., an Illinois Corporation d/b/a FIRESTONE TIRE AND SERVICE CENTER, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MORAN

 Plaintiffs Timothy and Pamela Lawrence have brought this lawsuit seeking compensation for injuries allegedly sustained as the result of defendant Bridgestone/Firestone's negligence. Defendant moves for summary judgment, arguing that any negligence on its part was not the proximate cause of any injuries sustained by plaintiffs. For the reasons stated below, this motion is denied.

 FACTS

 On October 15, 1995, plaintiffs Timothy and Pamela Lawrence purchased four new tires for their pickup truck at a Firestone store. These tires were installed by Firestone personnel at the time of purchase. On October 27, 1995, twelve days and 172 miles later, the right rear tire and wheel disengaged from the truck while Mr. Lawrence was driving. Mr. Lawrence steered the car into a nearby parking lot and brought it safely to a stop. Neither Timothy Lawrence nor any of his passengers were injured.

 After the car had stopped one of the passengers, Mike Sellergren, set off on foot to get a car and drive everyone home. In the meantime, Timothy Lawrence tried to put the wheel back on the pickup, rather than calling a tow truck. Several factors apparently contributed to this decision. Mr. Lawrence did not have immediate access to a phone and was not a member of a motor club. Thus it would presumably have been inconvenient and costly to have the pickup towed. Furthermore, having had some automotive experience, Lawrence apparently felt that it would not be hard to reattach the wheel. The weather conditions at the time were not optimal, but not terrible. It was a chilly evening, and it was raining lightly. It was dark outside and the closest street lamp was approximately 45 feet away. As for the wheel itself, although three of the five lug bolts had been sheared off, the remaining two seemed strong enough to hold the wheel for the short journey home.

 Lawrence consulted his owner's manual and attempted to follow the directions for replacing a flat tire. The manual stated that the jack should be placed under the axle leading to the tire that needs replacing. Lawrence was unable to do so, however, because the axle was resting on the ground. Thus, he placed the jack under the pickup truck's leaf spring (part of the truck's suspension system). He seems to have jacked up the truck without difficulty, but as he was attempting to place the wheel over the lug bolts the truck fell off the jack. Lawrence sustained injuries to his hand, which was pinned between the tire and the fender. Plaintiffs' expert testified in his deposition that Lawrence's actions were reasonable under the circumstances, although he acknowledged that the leaf spring was a less stable place to position the jack than the truck's axle.

 Timothy Lawrence filed suit against Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., in the Circuit Court of Cook County, alleging negligence in the installation of the tires on his pickup truck. Mr. Lawrence's wife Pamela also filed suit for loss of consortium. Defendant removed the case to federal court on the basis of diversity of citizenship. Defendant now moves for summary judgment, arguing that any negligence on its part was not the proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries.

 Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Renovitch v. Kaufman, 905 F.2d 1040, 1044 (7th Cir.1990). We will make all reasonable factual inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142, 90 S. Ct. 1598 (1970). Although proximate cause is ordinarily a question of fact for the jury, it can be decided as a matter of law when reasonable people could not differ as to the inference to be drawn from the undisputed facts. Williams v. Chicago Board of Education, 267 Ill. App. 3d 446, 451, 204 Ill. Dec. 863, 642 N.E.2d 764 (1st Dist. 1994).

 Proximate cause is essentially a question of foreseeability. As the Seventh Circuit has stated, "A defendant's conduct is the proximate cause of a plaintiff's injury if all events following that conduct, including any actions by the plaintiff, are its reasonably foreseeable results." Suzik v. Sea-Land Corp., 89 F.3d 345, 348 (7th Cir. 1996) (citing Bentley v. Saunemin Township, 83 Ill. 2d 10, 46 Ill. Dec. 129, 413 N.E.2d 1242 (1980)). The question then is whether defendant could reasonably have foreseen that when the wheel fell off of Lawrence's pickup truck he would attempt to reattach it. Defendants argue that such a result was not foreseeable. Their negligence merely created a condition that only became dangerous because Lawrence decided to reattach the wheel. See Novander v. City of Morris, 181 Ill. App. 3d 1076, 1078-1079, 130 Ill. Dec. 817, 537 N.E.2d 1146 (3d Dist. 1989) (discussing "cause v. condition"). Lawrence's decision to reattach the wheel was an effective intervening cause that broke the chain of causality. Id. at 1078 (defining proximate cause as "one which produces the injury through a natural and continuous sequence of events unbroken by any effective intervening cause"). Plaintiffs argue, on the other hand, that Mr. Lawrence's response to the loss of the wheel was perfectly natural and foreseeable. Each side has submitted a number of cases to support its argument. We must examine them closely to determine whether, under Illinois law, there is a sufficient connection between Firestone's negligence and Lawrence's injury to constitute proximate cause.

 Defendant relies primarily on three cases in which the court found that an unforeseeable supervening cause broke the chain of causality between the defendant's negligence and the plaintiff's injury. In the first, Lindenmier v. City of Rockford, 156 Ill. App. 3d 76, 108 Ill. Dec. 624, 508 N.E.2d 1201 (2d Dist. 1987), the plaintiff was injured when she tried unsuccessfully to turn left at an intersection in the face of oncoming traffic. She had a full green light at the time, but the left-turn arrow was burned out, so that she could not tell whether oncoming traffic was required to stop. She argued that if the arrow had been working she would have known not to attempt the turn, and so the city's failure to maintain the turn signal was the proximate cause of her accident. The court rejected this argument, finding that her decision to turn "was based strictly on her own assumption that it was safe to do so." Id. at 90. Indeed, in choosing to turn she ignored her duty to give oncoming traffic the right of way when attempting to turn left on a full green light. Thus, the city's failure to maintain the turn arrow in working condition was not the proximate cause of the accident.

 Defendant's second case is Novander v. City of Morris, 181 Ill. App. 3d 1076, 130 Ill. Dec. 817, 537 N.E.2d 1146 (3d Dist. 1989), in which the plaintiff was injured when his motorcycle was struck by an oncoming truck that had moved into his lane to avoid some potholes on the road and in an adjacent driveway. The plaintiff sued a variety of people, including the city and the individual who owned the driveway, claiming that their negligent maintenance of the road and driveway caused the truck driver to strike the plaintiff. The court noted that the potholes were not so severe as to force the truck driver into the oncoming lane -- indeed, that very driver had driven over them many times. Thus, it was not reasonably foreseeable that the potholes would cause the driver to violate his statutory duty not to cross over into the oncoming lane. The potholes were not the proximate cause of the accident.

 In Suzik v. Sea-Land Corp., 89 F.3d 345 (7th Cir. 1996), plaintiff was driving a semi-tractor with a refrigerated trailer, when one of the propane tanks that provided fuel to the refrigeration system fell out of its bracket. Plaintiff tried to push the tank back into place, despite his own history of back problems, and despite the fact that under the company's established procedures the driver was supposed to call a repairman rather than attempt a repair himself. The Seventh Circuit found that it was not foreseeable that the driver would depart from the repair procedures when he "had the opportunity to follow those procedures without significant risk to himself and others." Id. at 350. *fn1"

 Plaintiffs have introduced three cases of their own to support their argument that Timothy Lawrence's actions were reasonably foreseeable and thus not an effective intervening cause. In the first, Filipetto v. Village of Wilmette, 135 Ill. App. 3d 781, 90 Ill. Dec. 539, 482 N.E.2d 358 (1st Dist. 1985), the plaintiff was forced by a nearby moving car to ride his bicycle into an air compressor that had been left on the side of the road. The trial court found that the placement of the air compressor in the road was merely a condition, not the proximate cause of the accident. The car that forced the plaintiff into the compressor was an effective intervening cause that broke the chain of causality. The appellate court reversed, finding it foreseeable that leaving an air compressor ...


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