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Carillo v. Ford Motor Co.

October 24, 2001

LYDIA CARILLO AND ANGELO CARILLO, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, AND KEVIN GACZKOWSKI, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wolfson

UNPUBLISHED

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Honorable James P. Flannery, Judge Presiding.

On the afternoon of December 14, 1993, Lydia Carillo was stopped at a red light in Hammond, Indiana. She was in a 1991 Ford Explorer. A car being driven by Kevin Gaczkowski at about 60 miles per hour plowed into the rear of the Explorer. The force of the impact caused Lydia's seatback to flatten. She was thrown into the rear seat of the car, fracturing two vertebrae in her back. She is paralyzed from the chest down as a result of the injuries she sustained in the accident.

Lydia and her husband, Angelo, filed suit against the Ford Motor Company and Gaczkowski. Their product liability claim against Ford alleged that the design of the Explorer's seat was unreasonably dangerous. They alleged the seat was not strong enough to withstand the force of the collision, causing the seatback to collapse at impact, in turn causing Lydia's injuries. Their suit against Gaczkowski sounded in negligence. He was held in default before trial. The jury returned a verdict against Ford. It awarded Lydia $14 million in damages. Angelo was awarded $500,000 in damages on his loss of consortium claim. The trial court entered judgment on the verdicts.

Ford raises several issues on appeal, including the trial court's rulings excluding some of Ford's evidence, but it aims its heaviest guns at a pattern jury instruction the court refused to give.

We affirm the trial court's judgment.

FACTS

The three-week trial in this case included testimony from numerous lay and expert witnesses. Neither party disputes the facts surrounding the accident itself or the extent of Lydia's injuries. The heart of the dispute in this case is found in the expert testimony offered by each side. Ford's contentions did not focus on whether Lydia was injured to the extent she claimed or the facts of the accident itself -- it disputed the theories offered by her experts, who said her injuries were caused by the unreasonably dangerous design of the Explorer seatback.

Plaintiffs' experts said the seatback design was unreasonably dangerous in rear-impact collisions in which a high rate of force acts on the seat as a result of the impact.

Doctor Joseph Burton, the first of plaintiffs' experts to testify, was the chief medical examiner for DeKalb County, Georgia. He was an accident reconstruction specialist. Dr. Burton testified that when Gaczkowski hit the Explorer, Lydia's car was pushed into the car in front of her. The right side of Lydia's car rotated and hit the back of another car. The cars Lydia hit were pushed into other cars in front of them. Lydia was driving the Explorer and her son, Anthony, was in the passenger seat. Both seats were in a reclined position after the accident. Lydia's body was stretched across her seat, and her feet were around the steering wheel or dash board. Anthony was found on the front floorboard. Lydia's and Anthony's seat belts were still buckled.

According to Dr. Burton, it would take somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of compressive force to break the vertebrae that Lydia broke during the accident. Dr. Burton discussed the role that the reclined seatback played in causing Lydia's injuries. When her seatback reclined, Lydia was pushed up the seatback. Lydia's shoulder was driven into the rear seat, resulting in her injuries.

Dr. Burton identified this type of movement as "ramping." Seats can be designed to minimize or prevent "ramping." The contour of the seat could be changed, the seat could be made from a different material, the angle or inclination of the seat could be changed, and restraints could be used to prevent this type of movement in rear-impact collisions. The force with which the Explorer was hit caused Lydia to have injuries that others might not have in similar, but less forceful, rear impact accidents.

Dr. Burton described the goals of a seat and seatback in rear end collisions as "part of the safety package to protect the individual." Lydia's seat "did not do what the seat would be expected to do" to prevent her from sustaining an injury. The type of collision involved in this case was reasonably foreseeable.

Sterling Gee testified he worked for Visteon Automotive, a division of Ford. Gee was responsible, in part, for the design of the seatback in the Explorer model Lydia was driving at the time of the accident.

Gee testified the seatback strength for that model Explorer was tested to make sure it complied with government standards. Ford's policy included testing it at a force 30 percent above what the government required. The seat was tested using a "static pull" test.

Gee testified the yielding seat design used in the Explorer was meant to absorb some of the force from an impact if an accident occurred. Gee said a rigid seat would transfer all of the energy of an impact to the occupant.

Robert Mezzadri testified he was a seat system technical specialist for Ford. He worked for Ford for 31 years. The majority of his work was in the area of seat design or seat system design. The seat that was in the 1991 Ford Explorer was a seat that was designed for the 1989 Ford Ranger. The "seat cushion pan" was the same in that design as it was in the design for the Ford Aerostar. The seatback strength for the Aerostar was similar to that of the Explorer. The differences between the two were primarily stylistic. Mezzadri discussed the design of the seat in detail. Mezzadri also was asked about the standard tests run on the Explorer seat. He said the seat had been tested up to a 400 pound load. This exceeded Federal standards for performance.

Mezzadri testified it was possible to design a seat in 1991 that would deform less than the Explorer seat did in a rear-impact collision. He agreed that a seatback was part of the restraint system in a rear collision.

Doctor Kenneth Saczalski testified he had a doctorate in engineering mechanics. His work experience included research that allowed him to gain an understanding as to how humans respond to impact loads. He also had done a number of studies focused on injury tolerance levels. Dr. Saczalski prepared an accident reconstruction of the collision that resulted in Lydia's injuries.

Dr. Saczalski determined that when Lydia's Explorer was hit from the rear by Gaczkowski's car, the Explorer was shoved forward into the car in front of it at about 30 miles per hour. According to Dr. Saczalski, Gaczkowski's car was moving at about 58 to 60 miles per hour when it hit the Explorer. About 20 g's of force were exerted on the Explorer in the collision. Based on tests carried out on a seat similar to the one that was in Lydia's Explorer, her seat could carry only about 7 g's of load force before it collapsed rearward. This means the seat collapsed before the Explorer had reached its top speed after the collision. Though Lydia was in a "normal seated position" before the impact occurred, once the seat collapsed after the impact, Lydia "was laying there exposed to any shoving or intrusion that would take place."

Dr. Saczalski said he also tested a Chrysler Sebring seat. That seat had an integrated seat belt. The 1991 Explorer seat belt was not integrated. The Sebring seat could withstand a higher force load than the Explorer seat. Based on the tests he performed, Dr. Saczalski felt Lydia would have been safe in a seat like the Sebring seat. There was nothing about the technology of the Chrysler seat that would not have made it feasible for the design of the 1991 Explorer.

Dr. Saczalski said Lydia's seat did not perform well. The Explorer seat was not safe because it lacked sufficient strength and height. The seat left Lydia "vulnerable in a very low load situation to a foreseeable crash event." Dr. Saczalski testified about a number of crash tests that exemplified this weakness in the Explorer seat. He described two tests he performed for other cases. Those tests showed the stronger seat performed better in accidents like Lydia's. He did not believe the Federal standard for seat loads provided a sufficient level of safety. There were seat designs in existence at the time that Lydia's Explorer was being produced that would have protected Lydia. He identified a BMW seat, a Mercedes seat, and the Sebring seat.

Ford's experts told the jury that yielding seats, like the Explorer's, were reasonably safe. They said they believed yielding seats prevented injuries in the majority of accidents. They claimed accidents like Lydia's are rare; if they designed seats to perform safely in accidents like Lydia's, safety would be compromised in the majority of rear-impact collisions which occur at a lower rate of force.

Philip Majka testified he was an independent automotive consultant who does research on accidents. He was employed by Ford as a product development engineer for 30 years before he retired in 1998. Majka described how a seat was designed for Ford. Majka discussed the evolution of seat design. Majka said the 1991 Explorer seat was primarily based on the Escort seat. Some components also were used in the Aerostar and Ranger.

Majka discussed yielding and rigid seats. The Explorer seat was a yielding seat. The advantage of a yielding seat is it absorbs some of the energy in an impact. He was aware of only two cars in production in 1991 that had a seat as stiff as Dr. Saczalski recommended. Ford seats generally are two to three times stiffer than the Federal requirement.

Majka said he did not believe it would be safe to use a seat as stiff as Saczalski recommended because if the occupant were out of position in the seat, the seat could cause serious injuries. The stiffer seat would cause more "rebound" in its occupants in the case of a rear-impact collision. The yielding seat would provide the greatest benefits for the majority of people.

Andrew Levitt testified he was a research engineer with Collision Research & Analysis, Inc. in California. Collision Research analyzes automobile accidents. He discussed the evolution of seat design.

Researchers found rigid seats have a tendency to store energy, which he identified as problematic. He believed the yielding seat performed well, particularly when coupled with a seat belt, and that there was a very low incidence of injury with those seats.

Levitt discussed the static pull test of the Explorer seat. The seat did not yield until it reached 800 pounds of force. Levitt said 99.9 percent of the vehicles on the road in 1991 had seats with the same strength range as the Explorer.

Carl Savage testified he was a consulting engineer who focused on vehicle crashworthiness. Savage described components of the Explorer seat. Statistically speaking, a person's chances of being in an accident as severe as Lydia's were very slim. Savage described how the Explorer seat would respond in a rear-impact collision. In order for the Explorer seat to ...


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