Ford Motor Preserves Risk-Utility Jury Instruction Argument For Appeal

In this product liability case, Ford Motor Co. was sued by the estate of a driver who died in a rear-end auto accident. After trial, a jury reached a verdict for the estate.

At trial, the parties fought about the correct way to instruct the jury to determine whether Ford was liable under a product liability theory. The estate argued that the jury should be instructed to use the “consumer expectation test.” Ford argued for a “risk-utility test.” The trial court gave the jury only the “consumer expectation test.”

The issue for the Illinois Supreme Court was whether Ford preserved this argument for the appeal. The supreme court stated the general rule to preserve an argument that the trial court improperly refused a jury instruction. “A party forfeits the right to challenge a jury instruction that was given at trial unless it makes a timely and specific objection to the instruction and tenders an alternative, remedial instruction to the trial court … These requirements ensure that the trial court has the opportunity to correct a defective instruction and to prevent the challenging party from gaining an unfair advantage by failing to act when the trial court could remedy the faulty instruction and then obtaining a reversal on appeal.”

In this case, Ford did object to the estate’s instruction, and did tender an alternative “risk-utility” instruction. In addition, there was sufficient evidence at the trial to support giving the “risk-utility” instruction. “Further, we are not persuaded by plaintiff’s argument that the tendered nonpattern instruction is so flawed or confusing that it did not meet the [correct] standard … Defendants, therefore, have properly preserved for appeal the question of whether the evidence presented was sufficient to entitle them to have the jury instructed on the risk-utility test.”

In the end, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the trial court’s refusal to give the “risk-utility” instruction deprived Ford of a fair trial. The estate’s judgment was vacated and a new trial was ordered. Read the whole case, Mikolajczyk v. Ford Motor Co., No. 104983 (10/17/08), by clicking here.