Cook County Record

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Panel affirms summary judgment to defendants in product liability suit stemming from car crash

By Jonathan Bilyk | Jan 10, 2014

A suburban husband and wife will not be able to move forward with their suit against an automotive part maker and a car dealership over the failure of a key electrical component in their vehicle which they claim led to a crash that cost the wife her legs.

On Dec. 31, the First District Appellate Court issued an unpublished order upholding a decision by Cook County Circuit Court Judge Drella C. Savage against plaintiffs Liam and Mary O’Neill, finding that the defendants, including Troy, Mich.-based auto parts manufacturer Delphi Corp., and Tinley Park car dealership Community Motors Inc., were not legally responsible for the 2001 crash.

The appellate order was authored by Justice Aurelia Pucinski. Justices Michael B. Hyman and P. Scott Neville concurred.

In the July 2001 incident at the crux of the suit, Mary, then 36, was driving home in a 2000 GMC Jimmy SUV, which she and her husband purchased about five months earlier.

The vehicle suddenly stopped in the middle of LaPorte Road in Mokena, something that was later attributed to the failure of the vehicle’s electronic control module, a part manufactured by Delphi.

Mary then called Liam to the scene, and the couple attempted to push the vehicle off the road.

However, as they were pushing, another vehicle, driven by Raymond Martin, crashed into their inoperable SUV.  Mary was pinned between the two vehicles, crushing both of her legs, which had to be amputated above the knee.

Martin, who had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit, later pleaded guilty to aggravated driving under the influence and received 180 days in jail, as well as 36 months probation.

The O’Neills sued Martin, and the two sides agreed to a settlement.

In 2003, they filed suit against Delphi and Community Motors, as well as General Motors Corp., which manufactured the Jimmy SUV.

Delphi and Community Motors in 2009 asked the judge for summary judgment in their favor, arguing that the failure of the control module was not the cause of the crash that claimed Mary's legs, and that they had “no duty to protect others from the criminal acts of third parties.”

In May 2012, the circuit judge agreed, finding that the failure of the car part may have “created the cause” for the crash, but was not “the legal cause of plaintiffs’ injuries.”

The O’Neills then appealed the decision that had effectively ended their suit against Delphi and Community Motors.

The appellate court, however, sided with the defendants, affirming the lower court’s determination that legal liability for the crash lies with the intoxicated driver, Martin, and not the auto parts maker or car dealer.

“The defective electronic control module, which caused plaintiffs’ vehicle to stop on the road, provided nothing more than a location where Martin’s negligence came to fruition,” Pucinski wrote for the panel.

Pucinski further noted that neither GM, Delphi nor Community Motors provided the O’Neills or other owners of similar vehicle models with “a written manual which anticipated a collision or which explained the procedure plaintiffs should follow if their vehicle would not start because the electronic control module failed.”

Therefore, the justices held, “the accident in this case was not reasonably foreseeable to the defendants, and the defendants’ conduct in manufacturing and selling a defective control module was not the legal cause of plaintiffs’ injuries.”

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