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Andrade v. General Motors Corp.

February 19, 2003


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. No. 98-L-585 Honorable Stephen E. Walter, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice O'malley


Pursuant to a supervisory order issued by the Illinois Supreme Court on October 2, 2002 (Andrade v. General Motors Corp, No. 94111 (October 2, 2002)), this court vacated its initial decision in this case, entered on May 7, 2002 (Andrade v. General Motors Corp, No. 2-- 01--0480 (2002) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23)), and reconsidered the matter in light of Simmons v. Garces, 198 Ill. 2d 541 (2002). The following opinion represents our resolution of all issues on appeal.

Plaintiff, Jennifer Andrade, sued defendant, General Motors Corp., for injuries she sustained when the 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier she was driving was struck in the rear by a Ford Taurus driven by Jerry Vojtech. The impact forced plaintiff's seat to recline violently and her body to slide back along the seat until her head forcefully struck the back seat, breaking her neck and rendering her partially paralyzed. Claiming the seat was too weak to sustain a reasonably foreseeable impact to the rear end of the Cavalier, plaintiff alleged strict liability, failure to warn, and negligence. A jury found against plaintiff on all three counts. The trial court subsequently denied plaintiff's motion for a new trial on the negligence and strict liability counts and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, a new trial on the failure-to-warn count. Plaintiff appealed, and defendant cross-appealed. Plaintiff died during the pendency of this appeal, and the co-executors of her estate, Gilbert Andrade and Lynn Andrade, were substituted as plaintiffs-appellants. For ease of discussion, we will refer to plaintiffs-appellants as plaintiff.

Plaintiff reasserts on appeal the following bases for a new trial on all counts: (1) the trial court refused to admit as substantive evidence a study of 50 accidents involving defendant's vehicles undertaken by defendant's legal and engineering staff; (2) the trial court refused to consider affidavits from the jurors indicating that they considered plaintiff's size and weight to have been a cause of her injuries; (3) plaintiff was prejudiced by defendant's expert's demonstration of how plaintiff wore her seatbelt at the time of the accident; (4) the general verdict in favor of defendant was inconsistent with the jury's answer to one of the special interrogatories; (5) the trial court discharged the jury without resolving the apparent contradiction; and (6) certain of the special interrogatories did not adequately reflect the issues in the case. Plaintiff also reasserts her argument that the jury's verdict on the failure-to-warn count was against the manifest weight of the evidence. In its cross-appeal defendant argues that the trial court erred in refusing to seal the transcripts of the trial proceedings that contain references to the content of the 50-case study. We affirm.

Plaintiff was driving her 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier on April 3, 1998, when she stopped at a red light. The Cavalier was then struck from behind by a Ford Taurus traveling at about 50 miles per hour. The collision occurred because the driver of the Taurus, Jerry Vojtech, was driving inattentively. When paramedics arrived, they discovered that plaintiff's seat was reclined, its back resting against the bench seat in the back of the car. Plaintiff had slid back on the driver's seat; her buttocks were against the back of the seat and her head against the bench seat in the back of the car. Plaintiff was found to have sustained spinal fractures resulting in paraplegia.

In the first count of a three-count complaint against defendant, plaintiff alleged strict liability, asserting that the driver's seat in the 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier "was unreasonably dangerous in that a foreseeable rear collision would likely collapse the seat quickly into the rear seat area of the vehicle causing the driver to be thrown head-first into the rear seating area." In the second count, plaintiff alleged that defendant was liable for failing to warn her about the "dangerous propensity" of the driver's seat. In her third count, plaintiff claimed that defendant was liable in negligence for (1) installing seats in the 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier that were "incapable of resisting a reasonably foreseeable rear end collision"; (2) failing "to follow its own testing and experimental data which had established that the type of front seats used in the Cavalier vehicle did not protect the occupant from serious injury caused when the seat back collapsed in reasonably foreseeable collision situations"; and (3) failing "to strengthen the front seats so that they would not collapse during an impact of the type experienced by the [p]laintiff."

At trial, plaintiff's and defendant's experts agreed on the mechanics of the collision and plaintiff's injury. The Taurus struck the rear of the Cavalier squarely, bumper to bumper. The impact created a "Delta V," or change of velocity, in the Cavalier of between 21 and 30 miles per hour. The change occurred in the span of only 100 to 200 milliseconds. At the time of the collision, the velocity combined with plaintiff's body weight, which was between 250 and 260 pounds, to create a total force on the driver's seat of between 25,000 and 30,000 pounds. Yielding to the force, the driver's seat reclined and plaintiff was propelled headfirst into the backseat, where she injured her neck.

Plaintiff's and defendant's experts disagreed at trial over whether the backs of the front seats in the 1998 Cavalier were sufficiently resistant against the threat that a rear impact would cause the seats to forcibly recline and "ramp" the occupant into the backseat of the car, as happened with plaintiff. The parties agreed on the following facts relevant to that dispute: (1) when claimant's 1998 Cavalier was manufactured, federal standards required front seat-backs of automobiles to withstand a minimum of 3,300 pounds, and defendant required its front seat-backs to withstand at least 6,600 pounds; (2) the front seat-backs in the 1998 Cavalier could withstand 11,000 pounds; (3) plaintiff's body weight at the time of the accident placed her in the 99th percentile of body weights for both male and female drivers; and (4) the largest crash test dummy available when the 1998 Cavalier was designed weighed 217 pounds, which was in the 95th percentile of male drivers. Plaintiff's and defendant's experts disagreed over whether plaintiff's body weight at the time of the accident was beyond the design range for the 1998 Cavalier front seats. Also, plaintiff and defendant presented conflicting interpretations of data showing the frequency of rear-impact accidents resulting in injuries due to collapsing seat backs.

Much of the testimony at trial reflected apparently irreconcilable differences between two schools of thought on seat resistance. Plaintiff's experts claimed that nonyielding seats generally are safer because the occupant of a front seat can withstand a much greater rear impact without injury while seated upright than while in a prone position, which increase the risk for neck injuries caused by a headfirst collision with the backseat. Defendant's experts claimed that nonyielding seats place occupants at a far greater risk for whiplash injuries than do yielding seats. Yielding seats, they contended, also reduce the likelihood that an occupant will rebound off the seat into the ceiling of the car or into the steering wheel or dashboard. Plaintiff's experts testified that a nonyielding seat would have prevented plaintiff's injuries. Defendant's experts insisted that plaintiff would have been paralyzed even with a nonyielding seat because the force of the impact would have "ramped" her headfirst into the ceiling of the car.

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After the jury rendered a general verdict in favor of defendant on all counts of plaintiff's complaint, the jury answered several special interrogatories in the negative. The interrogatories relevant here are the following (the numbering is added here for convenience):

(1) "Was the seat in plaintiff's 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier designed by General Motors unreasonably dangerous?"

(2) "Was General Motors negligent in the design of the seat in plaintiff's 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier?"

(3) "Did General Motors fail to exercise ordinary care for the safety of the plaintiff, Jennifer Andrade?"

(4) "Did General Motors fail to adequately warn the plaintiff about the dangers, if any, of its product of which it knew, or in the exercise of ordinary care, should have known?"

(5) "Was the conduct of Jerry Vojtech the sole proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries?"

Plaintiff claims there is an inconsistency between the general verdict and the answer to special interrogatory No. (5) because defendant and Jerry Vojtech were the only proximate causes that the jury legitimately could consider. If the jury found a proximate cause other than Vojtech, plaintiff contends, that cause must have been defendant. Denying plaintiff's motion for a new trial based on the alleged inconsistency, the trial court found:

"[I]t is logical that 12 lay people may conclude that theseverity of the accident, the relative sizes of the car, the speeds involved or any other number of factors might have been somehow causative and, as a consequence, conclude that Mr. Vojtech in his actions *** was not the sole proximate cause."

The trial court's ruling on a motion for new trial will not be overturned unless it amounted to an abuse of discretion. Tedeschi v. Burlington Northern R.R. Co., 282 Ill. App. 3d 445, 448 (1996). We reject plaintiff's argument for two reasons. First, we agree with defendant that the issue of whether the design of the 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier's front seats contributed to plaintiff's injuries was mooted by the jury's finding that the seats were not unreasonably dangerous and that defendant's design of the seats did not constitute a lapse of ordinary care. An essential element of strict liability and failure to warn is that the product causing the plaintiff's injury was unreasonably dangerous. See Hansen v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 309 Ill. App. 3d 869, 880-81 (1999); Sorce v. Naperville Jeep Eagle, Inc., 309 Ill. App. 3d 313, 327 (1999). An essential element of negligence is that the conduct of the defendant that caused the plaintiff's injury constituted a lapse of ordinary care. See Lode v. Mercanio, 77 Ill. App. 3d 150, 154 (1979). Plaintiff does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the jury's findings on these elements with respect to the strict liability and negligence counts. Although plaintiff does challenge the sufficiency of the evidence concerning the failure-to-warn count and asks that a judgment notwithstanding the verdict be entered on that count, we reject that argument. Because plaintiff has not successfully challenged the jury's finding that defendant was at fault in designing the driver's seat in the Cavalier, the issue of whether plaintiff's injuries were caused by the design of that seat is moot.

Even if we were to reach plaintiff's allegation of an inconsistency between the general verdict and the jury's answer to special interrogatory No. (5), we would reject the argument. "When the special finding of fact is inconsistent with the general verdict, the former controls the latter and the court may enter judgment accordingly." 735 ILCS 5/2--1108 (West 2000). However, a general verdict and a special interrogatory are inconsistent only when the answer to the interrogatory is clearly and absolutely irreconcilable with the general verdict. Kessling v. United States Cheerleaders Ass'n, 274 Ill. App. 3d 776, 779 (1995). All presumptions are given in favor of the general verdict. Kessling, 274 Ill. App. 3d at 779-80. When a special interrogatory does not cover all the issues submitted to the jury, and a "reasonable hypothesis" can resolve the alleged inconsistency, the special interrogatory will not control. Kessling, 274 Ill. App. 3d at 780.

The trial court instructed the jury pursuant to Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions, Civil, No. 15.01 (1995) (hereinafter IPI Civil (1995)), which states:

"When I use the expression 'proximate cause,' I mean any cause which, in natural or probable sequence, produced the injury complained of. It need not be the only cause, nor the last or nearest cause. It is sufficient if it concurs with some other cause acting at the same time, which in combination with it, causes the injury."

IPI Civil (1995) No. 15.01 places no limit on the number of proximate causes a jury might find to have resulted in a particular injury. Indeed, it is axiomatic that there may be more than one proximate cause of an injury. See Bentley v. Saunemin Township, 83 Ill. 2d 10, 17 (1980). Moreover, "proximate cause" is not synonymous with "negligent cause." McDonnell v. McPartlin, 192 Ill. 2d 505, 523 (2000). An ...

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