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Hilst v. General Motors Corp.

May 26, 1999


Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Judicial Circuit Peoria County, Illinois No. 94--L--643 Honorable John A. Barra, Judge Presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Koehler


In this appeal, we are principally called upon to decide whether the Tazewell County circuit court erred when it concluded that the plaintiffs' "no airbag" claim was preempted by federal law. Additionally, we are called upon to review several rulings made by the circuit court during the course of and after trial. Because we conclude that the circuit court did not err, we affirm.


Plaintiffs Darrel and Judith Hilst were involved in an automobile collision with defendant Philip Bradford on February 28, 1994, when Bradford's vehicle crossed the road's center line and hit the plaintiffs' Pontiac Grand Am. At the time of the accident, all three persons were wearing their seatbelts. Darrel Hilst, the only person seriously injured, suffered a torn mesenteric artery that resulted in the removal of a large section of his colon. The plaintiffs' 1989 Grand Am was equipped with a passive restraint system that was designed to automatically operate.

Darrel Hilst filed suit against defendants Bradford and General Motors Corporation (GM) for his injuries alleging that Bradford negligently caused the collision and that GM manufactured a defective Grand Am that enhanced Darrel's injuries. Judith Hilst filed suit against Bradford for her injuries and against Bradford and GM for loss of consortium. Prior to trial, Judith Hilst settled her claim against Bradford. The plaintiffs alleged that GM: (1) failed to equip the Grand Am with a driver's side airbag; (2) equipped the Grand Am with a restraint system that did not properly operate to restrain Darrel Hilst; and (3) failed to equip the Grand Am with a steering wheel that adequately absorbed energy when struck by a driver during a frontal collision.

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 (Standard 208) is promulgated under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (Safety Act) (15 U.S.C. §1381 et seq. (1988), recodified as 49 U.S.C. §30102 et seq. (1994)). It provides automobile manufacturers with "the option [to] *** equip[] cars with either automatic seatbelts or airbags." 49 C.F.R. § 571.208, S4.1.3.3, S4.1.1.1 through Based upon Standard 208, GM elected the seatbelt option for the 1989 Grand Am that was later purchased by the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs claimed that although Standard 208 did not require airbags to be placed in the 1989 Grand Am, GM nevertheless should be liable under state law for the Grand Am's failure to be crashworthy without a driver's side airbag.

The Peoria County circuit court granted GM a partial summary judgment on the plaintiffs' "no airbag" claim concluding that it was preempted by Standard 208 and the following provision of the Safety Act: "Whenever a Federal motor vehicle safety standard established under this subchapter is in effect, no State or political subdivision of a State shall have any authority either to establish, or to continue in effect, with respect to any motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment any safety standard applicable to the same aspect of performance of such vehicle or item of equipment which is not identical to the Federal standard." 15 U.S.C. 1392(d) (1988).

The circuit court also granted GM's motion to prevent the plaintiffs from introducing evidence of airbags as a feasible alternative design to the passive seatbelts that were installed in the plaintiffs' Grand Am.

The jury awarded a verdict in favor of Darrel Hilst in the amount of $226,000 against Bradford; however, the jury returned a verdict against the plaintiffs in favor of GM. Subsequently, the plaintiffs filed a posttrial motion as to Bradford and GM seeking a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial on all issues as to GM and a new trial on the issue of damages as to Bradford. The circuit court denied the plaintiffs' motion. The plaintiffs' claim against Bradford was subsequently settled and is not at issue before this court. The plaintiffs appeal the various rulings as they relate to GM.


A. PreemptionAt the outset, we note that review of a summary judgment is de novo. Busch v. Graphic Color Corp., 169 Ill. 2d 325, 333, 662 N.E.2d 397, 402 (1996). When the pleadings, affidavits, depositions, admissions, and exhibits on file viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party reveal that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment is appropriate. Busch, 169 Ill. 2d at 333, 662 N.E.2d at 402.

In this case, we must decide whether common law claims alleging that automobiles are defective because they are not equipped with airbags are preempted by the federal Safety Act and Standard 208. Preemption will occur if: (1) state law conflicts with federal law; or (2) the legislative field is occupied by federal law. Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 505 U.S. 504, 516, 120 L. Ed. 2d 407, 423, 112 S. Ct. 2608, 2617 (1992). When Congress enacts a provision that defines the federal law's preemptive reach, any matter beyond that reach is not preempted. Cipollone, 505 U.S. at 516, 120 L. Ed. 2d at 423, 112 S. Ct. at 2617. There are two presumptions that courts must consider when invoking the doctrine of preemption. First, in areas where states have exercised their historic police powers, such as the health and safety of their citizens, courts must start with a presumption against preemption, absent a clear and manifest purpose of Congress. Second, in every preemption case, the purpose of Congress is the ultimate touchstone. Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 166 F.3d 1236, 1237 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

Federal court decisions interpreting a federal act are binding upon our Illinois courts. Busch, 169 Ill. 2d at 335, 662 N.E.2d at 403. We therefore look to Pokorny v. Ford Motor Co., 902 F.2d 1116 (3d Cir. 1990), and Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 166 F.3d 1236, 1237 (D.C. Cir. ...

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