By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.
Evidence supported all findings, except it did not support a punitive damages award.
A trial court did not err in confirming a $10-million compensatory damages award to a tow truck driver who was permanently disfigured after the hood of his truck fell in the absence of any safety device on the vehicle, a state appellate panel in Illinois ruled, affirming the majority of the lower court’s ruling. The appellate court agreed that there was sufficient evidence of negligent design and manufacture and that a new trial was not merited, but found that the manifest weight of the evidence did not support a $10-million punitive damages award, which was vacated (Ravizza v. PAACAR, Inc., September 8, 2020, Cobbs, C.).
In January 2012, a commercial tow truck driver sent on a call experienced mechanical problems with his 1997 Kenworth T800 Truck. While waiting for his company’s mechanic to arrive, he opened the hood to look at the engine. A strong gust of wind blew the hood shut while the driver was beneath it, fracturing his skull and causing him the loss of an eye. He filed a multi-count lawsuit against PACCAR, Inc., the truck’s manufacturer, and his employer, District Rebuilders, Inc. Specifically, he alleged that the manufacturer was liable for negligent design and negligent manufacture, and that his employer was liable for negligent maintenance of the truck.
Jury trial. The case proceeded to a jury trial, and approximately 28 witnesses offered testimony. In addition to his own testimony, key witnesses on the driver’s behalf included two mechanics, the company owner, a truck driver with a different company who drove the same Kenworth T800, and a failure analysis expert.
The employees testified that the records on the truck maintenance were "very sketchy," but that the truck had undergone preventative maintenance, that the hood hold had never been replaced during their time working with the company, and that the truck never had a device to prevent hood blow back, nor had one been removed. The owner testified that truck had never been loaned or leased to another company and that the only work she saw done on the truck was a paint job.
The other truck driver testified that his truck was equipped with a safety cable and hook system (SCH system), but that he had an experience in which the hook failed when a strong gust of wind blew the hood down. His employer reported the incident to PACCAR in 1991.
The expert, a Ph.D in mechanical engineering an materials science, examined the truck at issue, other T800 series trucks, deposition transcripts, safety videos and other materials from the manufacturer. He noted that there were three hood blow back safety devices in the 1996 video, but the SCH system was not featured. The expert also noticed that the SCH system was located near the radiator, which posed a risk of injury. Moreover, the system was not a distinct color separate from the surrounding components and the warnings were not clear on how to use it. He also observed that there were other safety systems installed on other Kenworth vehicles at the time of the truck at issue that were superior to the SCH system. He also testified that PACCAR had filed for a patent on an "Automatic Positive Hood Safety Lock" three years before the truck had been manufactured, and the patent discussed issues concerning the SCH system, which indicated that the manufacturer was aware of the serious injury posed by that system.
PACCAR’s key witnesses included a tow-truck driver not affiliated with District Rebuilders, a Kenworth engineer, and a Kenworth mechanic. The tow-truck driver testified that the truck had been properly maintained, and the Kenworth engineer testified that the hood at issue was not a genuine part.
Instructions and verdict. After the evidence had been presented, the jury was given issue instructions. With respect to PACCAR, the jury was given the following two instructions: "Designed the truck at issue without an adequate safety system to prevent the hood from unexpectedly closing" (negligent design) ; "Manufactured the truck at issue without an adequate hood safety system to prevent the hood from unexpectedly closing" (negligent manufacture).
The jury returned a verdict in favor of the driver, finding that he was entitled to $10 million in compensatory damages, allocating fault among the driver (5 percent), his employer (25 percent), and PACCAR (70 percent). The jury affirmatively answered the question as to whether "the hook and cable blow back safety system for the subject truck inadequately designed by Paccar?"
After trial. Both the employer and the manufacturer filed post-trial motions, which were all denied but for a reduction of the $10-million compensatory damages against PACCAR, which was reduced to $9.5 million. Both filed the present appeal. The manufacturer asserted that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the driver failed to prove negligence and, alternatively, that it was entitled to a new trial because of several errors.
Negligent design. The manufacturer argued that it was entitled to judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the SCH system must have been removed after the manufacture and, thus, the design and manufacture of the truck could not have caused the driver’s injuries. Under applicable law, the driver was obligated to prove that the product was unreasonably unsafe and that the manufacturer knew or should have known of that unsafe condition. Specific to negligent design, the issue was whether the manufacturer exercised reasonable care in the design of the product and whether in the exercise of ordinary care the manufacturer should have foreseen that the design would be hazardous must be resolved.
The manufacturer argued that the only plausible explanation for the absence of the SCH system was that it had been removed with the hood and radiator after it left PACCAR’s control. The appellate court disagreed, explaining that there was considerable evidence at trial to support the jury’s general finding of liability for negligent design. Namely, there was evidence presented supporting a jury finding of breach of duty because the SCH system had been designed to be removable or not recognizable as a safety device when removed. The expert also testified that the use instructions for the system were unclear, the system was not included in the safety video, and, thus, it should have been foreseeable that a user might not know what the device was or its intended purpose.
With respect to proximate cause, the appellate court determined that the jury could infer from the evidence that the design of the SCH system rendered the system unrecognizable as a safety device to put a user on notice to replace it if was removed. Accordingly, if the decals, warnings, and safety instructions had been adequate, it would have been likely that the system would have recognizable for the purpose for which it was designed and, thus, the injury suffered by the driver was foreseeable. Therefore, the jury’s findings were not unreasonable.
Negligent manufacture. The manufacturer argued that the mere fact that the driver had been injured was not sufficient to support a negligent manufacturing claim. Although the appellate court agreed that the mere existence of an injury does not give rise to a presumption or inference of a manufacturer’s negligence, there was evidence that the SCH system would fail even if the device was present and functioning as intended. The manufacturer argued that the missing SCH system was not the result of its negligence, but there was testimony that the hood had not been replaced and that the system had not been removed from the truck.
Although there was some evidence to support a fact issue as to whether there was a superseding cause between the manufacturer’s actions and the driver’s injury, the possibility of a different jury conclusion does not merit setting aside the judgment actually rendered. The appellate court explained that if there is more than one proximate cause of an injury, a negligent party cannot escape responsibility because another party is also culpable of negligence when the harm is foreseeable. Because the evidence showed that the system was affixed to the radiator and not the frame, it was foreseeable that it could be removed.
New trial. PACCAR presented six reasons why it should be granted a new trial: (1) inconsistent jury verdicts; (2) the verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence; (3) the lower court improperly instructed the jury; (4) the lower cost erred when it declined to separate verdicts and special interrogatories; (5) the lower court erred when it admitted improper expert testimony; and (6) evidence of similar prior incidents.
First, the appellate court disagreed that the jury verdicts were irreconcilable. The manufacturer contended that by finding the employer liable, the jury found that the SCH system was adequate, and by finding the system to be negligently manufactured to the degree that PACCAR’s conduct was willful and wanton, the jury accepted the view that the system would not have prevented the accident. The appellate court clarified that the issue instruction to the jury presented one of three alternative theories and, thus, the "only reasonable interpretation" argument by the manufacturer failed.
Second, the appellate court stated that there was ample evidence for the jury to have both found the manufacturer negligent for the design and negligent for the manufacture of the system. Therefore, the jury’s verdict was not against the manifest weight of the evidence.
Third, because trial courts have broad discretion to give or deny jury instructions, and it is improper to use additional instructions when the pattern instructions correctly and adequately charge the jury, the lower court did not err at trial, the appellate court determined. The manufacturer argued that the pattern instructions were inadequate—not that the negligence instructions were incorrectly given. The manufacturer was correct that the lower court erred when it held that "unreasonably dangerous" only applies to strict liability and not negligence claims but denying the manufacturer’s non-pattern jury instruction was not prejudicial. Finally, the manufacturer’s other proposed instruction would have confused the jury.
Fourth, the manufacturer’s contention that the lower court erred when it refused to provide separate verdicts and special interrogatories was without merit. The appellate court explained that separate verdicts are appropriate when claims arise out of different transactions or occurrences, which was not true in the present case. Further, the jury was given a special interrogatory relating to the negligent design issue, which eliminated any confusion or prejudice. The other interrogatories that the manufacturer sought to present to the jury were not appropriate and, thus, had been properly denied.
Fifth, the manufacturer asserted that it was entitled to a new trial because the lower court improperly allowed testimony from the driver’s expert witness. Specifically, PACCAR argued that three opinions from the expert were improper: there was a feasible, safer alternative design; the driver would have been inured even if the SCH system was in place; and the cable and hook could break from repeated use stress. The appellate court explained that the lack of the system in the truck had no bearing as to the expert’s safer alternative design and defective nature opinions. Moreover, the expert was appropriately qualified to testify as an expert based on his knowledge, skill, experience, and training. The three opinions had adequate foundational support in the record. Therefore, they were properly admitted.
Finally, the evidence of prior incidents was not an abuse of discretion because there was an adequate foundation and it was relevant to show that there was a particular danger and that the manufacturer had notice of the hazardous nature of the alleged defect.
Remittitur. The manufacturer argued that the jury awards for compensatory and punitive damages were excessive. With respect to compensatory damages, the manufacturer contended that the excessive amount reflected the "passion and prejudice" of the jury. However, the appellate court said that the driver was injured at 26 years of age, was disfigured and partially blinded, and experiences pain from the plates inserted in his face, and there was not need to present expert testimony as to the cost of future medical expenses. The lower court also noted that the driver will suffer emotionally the rest of his life. Thus, the lower court did not abuse its discretion when it denied remittitur on the compensatory damages.
However, the appellate court did agree that because the SCH system was missing at the time of the accident, there was no connection between the manufacturer's alleged willful and wanton conduct and the driver's injury to support punitive damages. Thus, the manifest weight of the evidence was against the jury’s finding of that conduct. Therefore, the $10-million punitive damage award was vacated and the remainder of the lower court’s ruling was affirmed.
The case is Nos. 1-18-1109 and 1-18-1154.
Attorney: (Hurley McKenna & Mertz, PC) for Quentin Ravizza. (Mayer Brown LLP) for District Rebuilders Inc. and PACCAR, Inc.
Companies: District Rebuilders Inc.; PACCAR, Inc.
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