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Goesel v. Boley International Ltd.

October 20, 2009

ANDREW GOESEL, ET AL., ETC., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
BOLEY INTERNATIONAL (H.K.) LTD., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Milton I. Shadur Senior United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM ORDER

Target Corporation and Target Brands, Inc.*fn1 are co-defendants with Boley International (H.K.) Ltd. ("Boley") in this personal injury action brought by Andrew and Christine Goesel ("Goesels"). Goesels have sued both individually and as next friend of their son Cole Goesel, who suffered a serious eye injury when the plastic sword that was part of a toy manufactured by Boley and distributed exclusively by Target shattered into several small and sharp fragments. Target has moved to be dismissed solely from Goesels' Complaint Count II, which sounds in strict liability, and that motion has been briefed by Target and Goesels.

For its part Target points to 735 ILCS 5/2-621,*fn2 a statute captioned "Product Liability Actions" that focuses narrowly on such actions against non-manufacturer defendants and exculpates them from liability once such an action targets*fn3 the manufacturer as well.*fn4 That precondition has of course been satisfied here by Goesels' own decision to have joined Boley as a co-defendant. There are only three statutory exceptions to the statute's exculpatory mandate, set out in Act §(c):

(c) A court shall not enter a dismissal order relative to any certifying defendant or defendants other than the manufacturer even though full compliance with subsection (a) of this section has been made where the plaintiff can show one or more of the following:

(1) That the defendant has exercised some significant control over the design or manufacture of the product, or has provided instructions or warnings to the manufacturer relative to the alleged defect in the product which caused the injury, death or damage; or

(2) That the defendant had actual knowledge of the defect in the product which caused the injury, death or damage; or

(3) That the defendant created the defect in the product which caused the injury, death or damage.

Goesels respond in principal part by seeking to invoke the common law doctrine of "apparent manufacturer," which was announced and applied by the Illinois courts before passage of the Act and which, they say, has survived that enactment. As a fallback position, Goesels also assert that the allegations of their Complaint (treated as true, as Target's motion to dismiss Count II requires) bring them within the shelter provided by Act §(c)(1).

As for Goesels' principal argument, the leading Illinois case articulating the "apparent manufacturer" doctrine is Hebel v. Sherman Equip., 92 Ill.2d 368, 442 N.E.2d 1999 (1982).*fn5 Here is a summary description of that doctrine, taken from the post-Act case of Root v. JH Indus., Inc., 277 Ill.App.3d 502, 506-07, 660 N.E.2d 195, 198 (1st Dist. 1995)(all citations--primarily to the Hebel case--and internal quotation marks omitted):

Under this doctrine, a company that holds itself out to the public as the manufacturer of a product is liable for the injuries caused by that product if it is found to be unreasonably dangerous. The primary rationale for imposing liability on the apparent manufacturer of a defective product is that it has induced the purchasing public to believe that it is the actual manufacturer, and to act on this belief-that is, to purchase the product in reliance on the apparent manufacturer's reputation and skill in making it. It is thus apparent that whether a holding out has occurred must be judged from the viewpoint of the purchasing public and in light of circumstances as of the time of purchase. This rationale has also been extended to the non-purchasing public. Another justification is where a defendant puts out a product as its own and the purchaser has no means of ascertaining the identity of the true manufacturer. Thus, it would be fair to impose liability on the party whose actions effectively conceal the true manufacturer's identity.

Because the Illinois Supreme Court has had no occasion to speak to the viability or nonviability of the "apparent manufacturer" doctrine since the enactment of the Act on which Target relies, this Court's role is a predictive one: It must prognosticate how that court would resolve the issue if placed before it.

In that respect, it is true that both Root and Luu v. Kim, 323 Ill.App.3d 946, 752 N.E.2d 547 (1st Dist. 2001)(an opinion authored by the late Justice William Cousins, who had also written the panel opinion in Root) postdate the Act and analyze those cases by looking at the facts to see whether they would qualify for "apparent manufacturer" treatment. But in each instance the circumstances of the case were totally different from those posed by the present case, and in each instance the plaintiff's claims against the nonmanufacturer defendant were rejected. Root, the only one of those cases that had occasion to speak of the Act at all, did so only in the context that the plaintiffs there had dealt with the subject in alternative terms, unsuccessfully urging an estoppel doctrine based on defendant's asserted noncompliance with the Act's disclosure provisions.

This Court has exercised its required predictive role, and it holds that the Illinois Supreme Court would find that the statutory provisions of the Act have trumped the earlier judge-made doctrine and have defined the sole predicate for the potential imposition of strict liability on a nonmanufacturer. It is not simply that enactment of the Act came hard on the heels of the Hebel decision. Far more significant than the obvious potential inference of a cause-and-effect relationship between the Hebel decision and adoption of the Act is the very nature of the Act itself:

1. Act ยง(c) has substituted an express and limited set of standards that may prevent exculpation for the more amorphous analysis that had been called for by the judge-made doctrine as to what induces the public to believe that a ...


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