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29 March 2006

Illinois Appellate Court Rejects "Compatibility" Requirement For SUVs.

The First District of the Illinois Appellate Court, sitting in Chicago, has rejected the claim that the makers of sport utility vehicles, or SUVs, can be held liable for injuries to occupants of vehicles that collide with SUVs where those injuries are alleged to have been caused by the SUV's greater size and weight. The ruling, announced on March 23, 2006, came in an appeal in which the defendant manufacturer, General Motors Corporation, was represented by Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP.

The plaintiff, Philip Semprini, was involved in a front-end collision with a Chevy Blazer driven by a drunk driver. He sued both the Blazer's driver and its manufacturer, General Motors. Semprini alleged that he suffered serious head injuries after the larger Blazer allegedly rode up onto his passenger sedan and caused the roof of the car to collapse downward and come into contact with his head as he was thrown forward. Advancing theories of both negligence and strict liability, he claimed that the Blazer was defective in design due to its larger size, and in particular its greater height. The trial court granted summary judgment to General Motors.

On appeal, Semprini claimed that SUVs as a class are inherently "incompatible" with conventionally sized passenger vehicles like his due to their greater height and weight, and that this design defect had been the cause of his injuries. Citing growing sales figures for SUVs and positing a consequent rise in the rate of injuries in SUV accidents because more and more of them are on the roads, he argued that the size disparity between SUVs and cars, which he decried as "unnecessary," represented a flaw in the design of SUVs that created increased risk of injuries to passengers in cars that collide with them. Semprini further claimed that evidence that SUV manufacturers were taking steps to bring the height of SUV bumpers and energy-absorbing structures more into line with those of passenger cars demonstrated that SUVs designed without these modifications were in fact "defective" for tort purposes.

The appeals panel rejected this claim. It held that the greater height and weight of an SUV when compared to a passenger car were "open and obvious" to other drivers, and added that Semprini had failed to demonstrate that imposing a universal compatibility requirement for all vehicles in the event of collisions would benefit consumers, including those who chose SUVs based on their off-road and load carrying capabilities. In rejecting Semprini's claims of negligent design, moreover, the court confirmed that an automaker's duty to design a safe vehicle does not extend to protection of occupants of other vehicles in the event of a collision, and that there is no duty to design a vehicle with which it is safe to collide. Finally, the court also observed that steps automakers are currently taking on a voluntary basis to alter the height disparities between SUVs and cars "cannot be held against the manufacturer."

The case was briefed by Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP lawyers Joel D. Bertocchi and Joshua D. Yount, and was argued by Mr. Bertocchi. The case is Semprini v. General Motors Corp., No. 1-04-3452 (Ill. App. First Dist. March 23, 2006).

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