SHOW v. FORD MOTOR CO. (September 19, 2011)

David Show and his passenger were both injured when Show's Ford Explorer rolled over after being struck by another car. They brought suit against Ford, alleging that the vehicle had an unstable design and was therefore defective. Plaintiffs never designated a design expert witness. Magistrate Judge Denlow (N.D. Ill.) concluded that plaintiffs could not prevail without expert testimony and therefore granted summary judgment to Ford. Plaintiffs appeal.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Manion and Williams affirmed. The Court noted that Illinois law applied and that Illinois law recognized two approaches to a design defect case. The consumer-expectation test requires proof that the vehicle did not perform up to the safety standards that an ordinary consumer would expect. The risk-benefit test, on the other hand, looks instead to the balance between the benefits of the challenged design and the dangers inherent in the challenged design. The plaintiffs concede that expert testimony is required in a risk-benefit case but claim that is not required in a consumer-expectation case, since jurors know what an ordinary consumer would expect. As an aside, the Court questioned whether the need for expert testimony was a question of Illinois or federal law. If the two tests are merely methods of proof rather than theories of liability, federal law may apply as the law of the forum. Since the parties and the magistrate judge assumed that Illinois law controlled, the Court did not resolve the question. Even under Illinois law, the Court concluded that expert testimony is necessary. Under the consumer-expectation test, consumer expectations alone cannot resolve liability. There are questions of causation and physics and engineering that jurors are simply unable to resolve without expert testimony. The magistrate judge properly granted summary judgment in the absence of such testimony.