Illinois Appellate Court Affirms that Component Part Defect of Car Was Not the Proximate Cause of Injuries

Liam O’Neill bought a 2000 GMC Jimmy SUV.  On July 3, 2001, his wife, Mary, was driving home in the SUV when the vehicle suddenly stopped.  She was in the eastbound lane of a 2-lane street.  Mary attempted to restart the SUV several times but it would not start.

She called a tow truck and her husband came out to help her push the SUV off the road. Mary then turned on her hazard lights and Liam pushed the car on the driver’s side, while steering. Mary pushed from behind.

While the O’Neills were trying to move the SUV, a car driven by Raymond Martin struck the rear of the SUV.  Liam was knocked to the ground and Mary’s legs were pinned between the two vehicles, which led to her legs being amputated above the knee.  Other cars had passed the O’Neills’ SUV while it was stopped without incident. The weather was clear and there were no visual obstructions or obstacles that hindered a view of the O’Neills’ stalled vehicle. 

Martin had consumed 10 bottles of beer in a two-hour period before getting behind the wheel of his car.  Martin’s blood alcohol test revealed that his level of intoxication was more than double the Illinois legal limit.  Martin pleaded guilty to aggravated driving under the influence and received 180 days in jail and 36 months probation.  In 2002, the O’Neills sued both Martin and the bar where he bought and consumed the beer.  A settlement was reached in that case before trial.

In June 2003, the O’Neills filed suit against the General Motors Corp., Community Motors, the place where the vehicle was purchased, and Delphi, the company that manufactured the component part that failed and caused the O’Neill vehicle to stall.

The O’Neills alleged in their lawsuit strict tort product liability, negligence and breach of warranties of merchantability.  The O’Neills argued the failure of the electronic control module caused the SUV to stall and was the proximate cause of the O’Neills being injured when the Martin vehicle struck theirs. 

On February 9, 2009, Delphi moved for summary judgment arguing that the control module failure may have led to the accident, but not its proximate cause. Delphi maintained that it had no duty to protect the O’Neills from a criminal act committed by Martin.

Community Motors raised similar arguments.  The judge in the circuit court finding merit in both of their motions ruled that the failure of the control module may have contributed to the injuries, but was not the proximate cause of the injuries. From those orders, the O’Neills took this appeal.

The issue on appeal was proximate cause, not duty. The court considered whether the defendants could reasonably foresee that a control module failing would be a danger that placed the O’Neills in a situation where they would be injured.

Delphi and Community Motors argued that Martin’s criminal conduct — driving while intoxicated — broke the causal connection between the failure of the module and the injuries. 

The appellate court agreed with the trial judge’s view that the defendants could not reasonably foresee that the faulty control module was the proximate cause of the injuries. The court concluded that the defect in the control module provided only the location where Martin’s negligence came to pass.  As a result, the appellate court affirmed the trial judge’s decisions. 

Mary P. O’Neill and Liam P. O’Neill v. General Motors Corporation, et al., No. 2013 IL App (1st) 121566-U. 

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling car accidents cases, product defect cases, truck accident cases and bicycle accident cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Arlington Heights, Long Grove, Lake Zurich, Hoffman Estates, Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Vernon Hills, Streamwood, Bloomingdale, Roselle and Elk Grove Village, Ill.

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