A recent case from the Appellate Court of Illinois, Third District has outlined what anIllinois personal injury lawyer needs to do to defeat a defendant’s motion for summary judgment in product liability cases. The opinion, which contains an extensive synthesis of prior caselaw, also clarifies the standards that apply when the allegedly defective product that caused plaintiff’s injuries is now missing. To top Chicago products liability attorneys like those at Passen & Powell, this opinion provides helpful guidance in crafting expert affidavits and responding to defense summary judgment motions in order to bring our clients’ cases to trial for the results they deserve.
In Davis v. Material Handling Associates, Inc., the appellate court rebuked the trial court for applying an inappropriately exacting standard to plaintiffs opposing defensive summary judgment motions. The plaintiff in Davis was injured when an “order picker,” a hydraulic lift used to elevate employees to “pick” items for shipment off high shelves in a warehouse, broke. In particular, the accident was attributable to a broken hose and hose bracket. The defendants took possession of the hose and bracket after the accident, then lost them.
The defendants maintained that the accident was caused by negligent use of the order picker, specifically by the plaintiff’s colliding the hose bracket into racks. Plaintiffs, however, contended (among other theories) that the order picker was negligently designed so that tension was improperly placed upon the hose. Plaintiff submitted an affidavit from an engineer-expert in support of this contention.
The defendant-manufacturer moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted this motion. The trial court held that in order to defeat a motion for summary judgment on a product liability case, the plaintiff “must eliminate misuse and all other causes before a cause of action can continue on a theory of defective design.” The court held that plaintiff had not done so, because “a reasonable trier of fact could conclude” that negligent maintenance of the hose on the order picker was a cause of the accident. The plaintiff then sought to file an amended complaint adding other theories of causation, a motion which the trial court denied.
On appeal, the Third District first conducted a survey of the many opinions stating that it is not necessary for a products liability plaintiff to conclusively exclude all other potential causes of her accident in order to defeat summary judgment. Our products liability lawyers are pleased to see the Third District put to rest this recurring mistake in the law: while this standard is plainly wrong, it persistently reemerges again and again.
The Third District then concluded that the trial court had improperly granted the defendant manufacturer’s motion for summary judgment. The court held that to avoid summary judgment, a products liability plaintiff must simply create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the product in question was defective when it left the custody and control of the defendant. Because the Davis plaintiff had submitted an expert affidavit stating that the product was defectively designed, he had done just that. It was thus for the trier of fact to determine the true cause of plaintiff’s injuries.
The Third District also specifically addressed several of the defendant manufacturer’s arguments in support of the trial court’s decision. The court stated that the precedent clearly demonstrates that to defeat summary judgment, a products liability plaintiff need not eliminate all other possible causes of the accident. Additionally, the court found that the engineer-expert’s affidavit was properly supported by reference to the facts: an examination of the order picker, an examination of documents (including the service history of the order picker), and a review of the deposition testimony of the fact witnesses.
The court did note that, under its own precedent, in order to defeat summary judgment a products liability plaintiff must provide more than a possibility that a defect was the cause of the accident. An expert’s opinion must thus not be speculative, and must be tied to the factual evidence – although that evidence can be circumstantial. This guidance from the Third Circuit will help thoughtful personal injury attorneys and wrongful death lawyers to craft even better, more bulletproof expert affidavits. Using the affidavit in Davis as a model, we can ensure that our clients reach trial and have the best chance of an appropriate award.
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago personal injury lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.