Seventh Circuit Gets Specific about Non-Specific Defect Theory

In Bensenberg v. FCA US LLC, Donna Bensenberg (“Decedent”) filed suit to recover damages on a theory of strict product liability for injuries she sustained from an auto accident after her vehicle’s front airbag did not deploy. 31 F.4th 529 (7th Cir. 2022). While litigation was pending, Decedent passed away from unrelated causes. Id. at 533. Her son, Bradley Bensenberg (“Plaintiff”), then stepped in as Plaintiff. Id.

Case Background

On the day of the accident, Decedent was driving a 2008 Chrysler Aspen sport utility vehicle on a two-lane highway when she suffered a medical incident that caused her to lose consciousness. Id. at 532. Her vehicle entered a ditch, became airborne, returned to the ground, and struck a concrete post, causing neck injuries. Id. The vehicle’s side-curtain airbag deployed, but the front airbag did not. Her body hit the steering wheel and the area of the dashboard under the steering wheel. Id. at 532-33.

In 2017, Decedent filed suit against Fiat Chrysler Automotive (“FCA”) in the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. Id. at 533. The complaint alleged strict product liability claims based on manufacturing and design defects, as well as claims for failure to warn. Id. Plaintiff retained expert Dr. Bahram Ravani, who opined that the vehicle was likely traveling close to 53 miles per hour—exceeding the mandatory deployment threshold of the front airbag—when it struck the concrete post. Id. Dr. Ravani stated that if the vehicle was traveling above the deployment threshold when it struck the post, “then the airbag system was defective in not deploying the airbag in such a high-energy impact.” Id. FCA filed a Motion in Limine to exclude the expert opinion. Id. at 533-34.

The District Court did not take issue with the expert’s opinion that the vehicle was likely traveling over the deployment threshold. Id. at 534. It did, however, take issue with “his jump from [that] premise to [his] conclusion that the airbag system was thus defective. Dr. Ravani offer[ed] no evidence to establish how the airbag system’s design was defective.” Bensenberg v. FCA US LLC, No. 417-CV-04213-SLD-JEH, 2020 WL 7029885, at *5 (C.D. Ill. Nov. 30, 2020), rev'd and remanded, 31 F.4th 529 (7th Cir. 2022). The District Court granted summary judgment for the Defendant based on a lack of expert opinion identifying any alleged defect in the front airbag system. Id. at *9-10. The court reasoned that the complexity of the airbag system prevented a layperson from being able to evaluate whether the airbag was unreasonably dangerous as a result of a defect. Instead, it required an expert opinion. Id. at *9.

Appellate Court Ruling

On appeal, Plaintiff abandoned his design defect claim and clarified that he was pursuing only a claim of manufacturing defect. Bensenberg, 31 F.4th at 534. Plaintiff’s theory was based on a non-specific defect in the airbag system. Id. This theory relied on expert opinion to show that Decedent’s vehicle was likely traveling above the airbag deployment threshold. Id. Plaintiff argued that when the airbag failed to deploy, that evidence alone was then sufficient to support an inference that the failure to deploy was due to a manufacturing defect. Id.

Plaintiff invoked the consumer expectations test to show that the defect rendered the airbag unreasonably dangerous. Id. at 535. A typical product liability case would require expert testimony to establish that a product presented an unreasonable danger due to a defect. Id. However, the Seventh Circuit found that Illinois recognizes non-specific defect claims, which relieves a plaintiff of the obligation to identify a specific defect in a product. Id. at 535-36. Instead, a plaintiff can make a prima facie case of product liability. Id. at 536 (citing Tweedy v. Wright Ford Sales, Inc., 2 Ill.Dec. 282, 285, 357 N.E.2d 449, 452). The court stated that under a non-specific defect theory, a plaintiff may use “circumstantial evidence [to] support an inference that the product was defective by showing that the product failed to perform as expected . . . in light of its nature and intended function [when] the product was not being used abnormally and [where] there were no reasonable secondary causes of failure.” Id.

FCA argued that the Tweedy case underlying the non-specific defect theory argument was inapplicable in this case. Id. at 536-38. Tweedy involved a brake failure on a relatively new car that had had no repairs made on the brakes. Id. at 537-38. Plaintiff in Tweedy had pursued an argument of strict liability but did not produce expert testimony identifying a defect in the brake system of the vehicle that allegedly caused that Plaintiff’s injuries. Id. The Illinois Supreme Court held that a jury could reasonably infer the existence of a defect from the failure of the brakes to work as expected. Id. at 537. Defendant in the instant case argued that subsequent cases distinguished the relatively new car in Tweedy from cases involving older, extensively used ones that had other potential secondary causes of failure. Id. at 538. It noted that the latter type of vehicle was at issue in Bensenberg. Id. The vehicle in this case had 27,000 miles on the odometer when purchased used in 2009. Id. When the accident occurred six years later, the vehicle had 128,000 miles on it and had been serviced and repaired numerous times. Id.

The court agreed that on its face, this case was “a far cry from the scenario at issue in Tweedy.” Id. However, it did find that the component at issue in Bensenberg did not preclude reliance on Tweedy’s non-specific defect theory. Id. The reliability and efficacy of brakes or tires decline with time and usage, but airbags are only used when they are deployed and are designed to last for the life of the vehicle. Id. The court reasoned that there was no indication that the airbags had ever been deployed or replaced. Id. Likewise, there was no indication that the vehicle’s electronic monitoring system alerted Decedent to a potential malfunction requiring service or replacement of the airbag system. Id. Thus, the court held that a jury could find that the Decedent could reasonably expect the front airbag to deploy if her vehicle struck an object at a speed exceeding the airbag’s deployment threshold. Id. at 538-39.

The Appellate Court took issue with the District Court’s impression that the expert was obliged to identify a specific defect in the airbag system. Id. at 539. Instead, the Court stated that Plaintiff’s theory of the case under a claim of non-specific defect did not oblige Plaintiff to identify a particular defect. Id. Therefore, the Appellate Court found there was a question of fact precluding summary judgment, reversed the District Court’s judgment, and remanded the case for further proceedings. Id. at 540.

The Takeaway

In product liability cases where there has been a significant amount of destruction, it could be difficult to prove that the original form of the product was defective. Under Illinois law, when a manufacturing defect is alleged, a Plaintiff’s expert opinion identifying a specific defect may not be required to survive a Motion for Summary Judgment.

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