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Stringer v. Packaging Corp. of America

September 01, 2004

KENNETH W. STRINGER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
PACKAGING CORPORATION OF AMERICA, A DELAWARE CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from Circuit Court of Greene County. No. 03L5. Honorable James W. Day, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Steigmann

PUBLISHED

In May 2003, plaintiff, Kenneth W. Stringer, filed a strict-liability complaint against defendant, Packaging Corporation of America (PCA), seeking to recover for injuries he sustained when a box containing 30 dozen eggs gave way. In July 2003, PCA filed a motion to bar evidence and to dismiss the complaint, which the trial court denied. PCA filed a motion to reconsider, which the court denied. However, in December 2003, the court certified the following question for interlocutory review, pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 308(a) (155 Ill. 2d R. 308(a)):

"In a product[-]liability action[,] an allegedly defective box was destroyed by plaintiff's employer through no fault of the plaintiff. The defendant filed a motion to bar evidence and dismiss the case on the basis that the box was unavailable for examination and testing. Did the trial court err in denying the defendant's motion?"

We answer the certified question in the negative.

I. BACKGROUND

According to Stringer's May 2003 complaint, on May 14, 2001, he was working at the Carrollton IGA Foodliners. He lifted boxes from a refrigerated delivery truck onto a two-wheeled cart and then moved the cart to a refrigeration room. While unloading the boxes inside the refrigeration room, the left access hole of one of the boxes ripped and broke. Stringer tried to catch the box before it hit the ground, but the right access hole also ripped. During this process, Stringer wrenched and injured his back.

Stringer was taken to the hospital and treated for his injuries. (He ultimately underwent fusion of some of his vertebrae.) Before he returned to work at the IGA on May 29, 2001, Louis Baumgartner, another employee, disposed of the box, which was allegedly manufactured by PCA, in a compactor machine, destroying it.

In July 2003, pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 219(c) (166 Ill. 2d R. 219(c)), PCA moved the trial court to impose sanctions upon Stringer by either (1) barring both direct and circumstantial evidence as to the condition of the allegedly defective box or (2) dismissing the strict-products-liability count of his complaint. PCA also filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to section 2-619(a)(9) of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2002)), arguing that because the box that allegedly caused Stringer's injury was unavailable, PCA could not inspect the box and would thus suffer significant prejudice.

In response to PCA's motion, Stringer filed an affidavit, in which he averred that (1) the box was destroyed without his knowledge or consent; (2) because he was in the hospital, he was physically unable to prevent it from being destroyed; and (3) the box was not unique and, instead, was identical to other boxes manufactured by PCA for use by IGA stores in transporting "30 dozen eggs." Stringer also filed Baumgartner's affidavit, in which he averred that (1) he witnessed Stringer's injury, inspected the box, and noticed the access holes were ripped; (2) the box was destroyed long before Stringer was able to return to work; and (3) the box was identical to other boxes used to transport "30 dozen eggs."

On August 12, 2003, the trial court conducted a hearing on PCA's motion for sanctions and denied it. In September 2003, PCA filed a motion to reconsider and, alternatively, a motion for a Supreme Court Rule 308 finding. In support of those motions, PCA filed an August 29, 2003, affidavit of Daniel Hofer, general manager of supply services for PCA, in which Hofer averred that without the actual box, it would be impossible to (1) determine if PCA actually manufactured the box, (2) find a box from the same manufacturing lot, (3) determine whether the packer improperly set up the box or damaged it during set up, filling, or sealing processes, or (4) determine the cause of the alleged failure.

Following a September 2003 hearing, the trial court denied PCA's motion to reconsider. In December 2003, the court certified the question at issue here.

II. ANALYSIS

The certified question asks us to determine whether (1) a plaintiff in a product-liability action is subject to discovery sanctions or (2) a product-liability claim is subject to dismissal when the allegedly defective product is destroyed through no fault ...


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