Illinois Appellate Court Reinstates Product-Liability Claim Against Distributor

The Illinois appellate court has reinstated a product-liability lawsuit against a distributor in which there was a default judgment against the manufacturer of the product. In this case, the manufacturer was not subject to jurisdiction, and the plaintiff wasn’t able to satisfy the judgment. Nevertheless, the court ruled that the plaintiff may reinstate the lawsuit against the distributor.

In 2009, Jeff Chraca was unpacking a shipment of golf cart batteries. Chraca was employed by Chicago Battery Co. Chraca was lifting and carrying the batteries with the aid of a black strap that came with the shipment of batteries. The strap broke suddenly and Chraca wrenched one of his shoulders and his neck.

Chraca filed a worker’s compensation claim in 2011 and then filed a strict tort product-liability action against U.S. Battery — the company that sent the batteries and the strap to Chraca’s employer. However, U.S. Battery did not manufacture the strap; instead, it merely sent it along with the battery shipment.

Illinois law provides immunity from strict tort product-liability to non-manufacturers who were merely part of the distribution chain. If the defendant identified the manufacturer or manufacturers, its dismissal from the suit would be mandatory. However, according to the Illinois statute, the dismissal can be vacated and the defendant reinstated if the plaintiff can show that either the defendant incorrectly identified the manufacturer or the manufacturer cannot satisfy any judgment or reasonable settlement.

U.S. Battery was a company founded and functioning in the state of Georgia. It was there that it was served notice of this lawsuit. U.S. Battery moved to dismiss it, filing an affidavit attesting that it neither designed nor produced the straps and had no knowledge of any defects to the straps. U.S. Battery identified the straps as having come from Jess Link Inc., a company in California. Jess Link purchased the straps from Shenyan Kaicheng Foreign Trade Co. Ltd., located in China. Shenyan in turn had purchased the straps from the manufacturer, Yuhuan County Litian Metal Products Co. Ltd., another China-based company.

Yuhuan never advertised or sold products within the United States. It did not target its products to U.S. markets, and there was no evidence presented indicating that Yuhuan was aware that its straps were being resold in the United States. A lawyer consulting with Chraca concluded that there was “no good faith basis to assert that Illinois has jurisdiction over [Yuhuan].” Another lawyer was of the opinion that “there is no reasonable expectation of ever collecting judgment against the Chinese company.”

Nevertheless, having identified the manufacturer, U.S. Battery was dismissed from the lawsuit. However, two weeks later Chraca filed to reinstate U.S. Battery as a defendant. The court denied his motion, finding that his difficulties in collections were not a statutory criteria allowing reinstatement. Chraca took this appeal to the Illinois Appellate Court.

The appeals panel looked at two criteria that would allow a plaintiff to reinstate a distributing defendant in a product-liability case: the defendant must either be unable to satisfy any judgment or the court does not have personal jurisdiction.

The court found that Yuhuan could satisfy the judgment. The appeals court also found that the court did not have personal jurisdiction over Yuhuan. The appellate court acknowledged the peculiarity that Chraca, the plaintiff, was arguing that Yuhuan, the defendant, was not subject to personal jurisdiction.

The Illinois Appellate Court concluded that Yuhuan “took no action to place [the strap] into the hands of the Illinois consumer,” and that “there is no indication [Yuhuan] and had any connection of its own with Illinois.”

Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment and reinstated U.S. Battery as a party defendant.

Jeff Chraca v. U.S. Battery Manufacturing Co., 2014 IL App (1st) 132325 (Dec. 19, 2014).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling work injury cases, product liability cases and wrongful death 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 Maywood, Melrose Park, Franklin Park, Schiller Park, Schaumburg, Elmhurst, Bridgeview, Chicago Heights, Blue Island, Midlothian, Matteson, Calumet City, Dolton, Riverdale, Chicago (Lincoln Square, Humboldt Park, Lawndale, Canaryville, Stockyards), Brookfield and Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.

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