$10.7 Million Cook County Verdict Reversed for a New Trial

The Illinois Appellate Court for the First District has ordered a new trial in the product-liability lawsuit against a water heater company. The jury’s verdict of $10.7 million for a toddler killed by scalding bathwater was the underlying lawsuit leading to this verdict.

The Illinois Appellate Court’s decision centered on the heater’s instruction manual as well as a warning label on both a mock-up and the actual heater. It was the opinion of the appeals panel that the jury should have been allowed to see the heater’s instruction manual in the trial.

The appeals panel also said the jury should have been given the chance to answer a special interrogatory, which was the question aimed to distill and frame the issues. The question was whether the product was “unreasonably dangerous” when it left the location of the manufacturer.

To determine whether a product design is defective, Illinois courts generally consider whether its benefits outweigh its risks. The Illinois Supreme Court has held that such a “risk-utility test” should consider “the instructions and warnings accompanying the product.” Instruction manuals “certainly” qualify, according to the opinion written by Justice Maureen E. Connors.

At trial, the trial judge denied plaintiff’s motion to exclude warning labels from evidence. However, the jurors still were not really able to scrutinize the warning labels.

“Additionally, the warning labels in the photographs of both the mock-up model and the water heater in question are not legible. Even if they were clear, the jurors would not have known to look for the labels since defendant was barred from referencing the labels or asking about them on direct cross-examination.”

“As we have already noted, a factor to consider in the risk-utility test is the ‘warnings accompanying the product.’ Accordingly, we (appellate court) find that the trial court also erred in barring evidence of warning labels during trial, despite its order to the contrary.”

Mikayla King was scalded in a hot bath in February 2010, while she was at home with her mother Jennifer and her 4-year-old sister, Kiera. Mikayla’s mother testified that she had told the older child, Kiera, there was not time for a bath because the family had to pick up two older sons from school.

The mother was doing laundry when she heard the bath begin to run and after instructing Kiera to turn the water off, began walking toward the bathroom. She heard Mikayla, then 18 months old, scream. She ultimately called 911 to have her taken to the hospital for the burns she sustained.

Mikayla was taken to Provena Mercy Hospital in Aurora, Ill., then airlifted to Loyola University Medical Center‘s burn unit.  Mikayla underwent 19 surgeries over the next two months, but she died on April 18, 2010.

The independent administrator of Mikayla’s estate brought the lawsuit for product liability against American Water Heater Co., a subsidiary of A.O. Smith Corp. The defendant was found liable under a strict product-liability theory in July 2016 with a jury signing a verdict in favor of Mikayla’s estate in the amount of $1.8 million for grief; $1.8 million for loss of society; $1.8 million for loss of normal life; $1.8 million for conscious pain and suffering; $1.8 million for emotional distress; $713,601 for medical expenses; and $1 million for loss of benefit the child would likely have contributed to the future.

On appeal, the company argued the heater was not unreasonably dangerous, the judge excluded material evidence, improperly barred the defense from challenging the foreseeability of the injury and improperly denied a special interrogatory.

The appeals court noted that in a strict liability claim, evidence of contributory negligence is irrelevant. The trial court denied some of plaintiff’s motions to bar evidence relating to how much water was in the tub and how long Mikayla was in the tub. The judge also barred evidence of the instruction manual, which the estate claimed would suggest a consumer was at fault and related to “failure to warn” rather than defective design claims.

The appeals panel noted the manual warned that temperatures over 125 degrees posed risks, especially for children and the elderly. A police investigation concluded that water coming out of the King family’s tub faucet’s spout reached 134 and 138 degrees.

The manual also recommended installing a valve to reduce the water temperature at the point of use and noted that such valves are readily available at local plumbing stores.

The appellate court wrote that the panel agreed that the manual was pertinent under the risk-utility test, and the jury should have seen it.

“The appeals panel stated that as noted above, our [S]upreme [C]ourt has specifically stated that one of the factors to be considered in the risk-utility test includes ‘the instructions and warnings accompanying the product.’ The instruction manual would certainly fall under this category.”

The majority opinion in this case also stated that the trial court committed reversible error in rejecting a special question proffered by the company. Specifically, the question to ask would have been: “Was the water heater designed and manufactured by American Water Heater Co. in 2005 unreasonably dangerous when it left its control?”

The company claimed a negative answer would be inconsistent with a verdict of the plaintiff. The trial court denied it, stating it was “not a specific stated element of the current burden of proof instruction.” The appeals panel also stated that trial judges don’t have discretion to reject special questions that are properly formatted and that there is “simply no requirement that a question reflect a specific stated element of the jury instructions, and certainly not that the subject of two special interrogatories must be a specific element of the burden of proof instruction.” Such questions may only relate to an ultimate issue of fact upon which the parties’ rights depend.

“Here, the special interrogatory directly related to an ultimate issue of fact – whether the water heater was unreasonably dangerous when it left defendant’s control.”

There was a concurring opinion written by Justice Sheldon A. Harris that differed from the majority opinion in that he disagreed on the decision about the instruction manual, saying its use in the trial would imply the plaintiff bore some blame for the injury and that such claims are irrelevant in strict product-liability cases. “Use of the manual to show that plaintiff failed to discover or guard against scalding water would have allowed the jury to properly blame plaintiff for negligently causing Mikayla’s injuries and ultimate death. Therefore, I would find that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the manual.”

Accordingly, the appellate court reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court for a new trial.

Tarick Loufti v. A. O. Smith Corp. and American Water Heater Co., 2018 IL App (1st) 17095-U.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury lawsuits, wrongful death cases, product liability lawsuits, pharmaceutical defect lawsuits, traumatic brain injury cases and work injury lawsuits for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Bolingbrook, Joliet, Orland Park, University Park, Rolling Meadows, Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Alsip, Long Grove, Gurnee, Grayslake, Cary, Crystal Lake, Romeoville, Chicago (West Loop, Logan Square, McKinley Park, Peterson Park, Old Town, Printer’s Row, Pullman, Ravenswood, Lawndale, Little Village, Brighton Park, Marquette Park, Burnside, Chatham, Avalon Park, Calumet Heights, Pill Hill, South Chicago, Mont Clare, Galewood, Humboldt Park, Irving Park), Northlake, Villa Park, Yorkfield, Darien, Burr Ridge, Western Springs and Wheaton, Ill.

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