217 F.3d 353 (5th Cir. 2000), 99-60131, Stokes v Emerson Electric Co.

Docket Nº:99-60131
Citation:217 F.3d 353
Party Name:CHRISTOPHER STOKES and BETTY STOKES, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. EMERSON ELECTRIC CO., ETC., ET AL., Defendants, EMERSON ELECTRIC CO., U.S. Electrical Motors Division, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:July 17, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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Page 353

217 F.3d 353 (5th Cir. 2000)

CHRISTOPHER STOKES and BETTY STOKES, Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

EMERSON ELECTRIC CO., ETC., ET AL., Defendants,

EMERSON ELECTRIC CO., U.S. Electrical Motors Division, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 99-60131

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

July 17, 2000

Rehearing Denied Aug. 22, 2000.

Page 354

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 355

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi

Before POLITZ and DAVIS, Circuit Judges, and RESTANI,[*] Judge.

POLITZ, Circuit Judge:

Christopher Stokes filed suit against Emerson Electric Co. for injuries he sustained as a result of an allegedly defective condition at the Emerson plant.1 Emerson appeals an adverse judgment following a jury verdict. For the reasons assigned, we vacate and remand.

BACKGROUND

Stokes is a journeyman electrician and a ten-year employee of Carter Electric Company, an independent contractor that provided services to Emerson's plant in Philadelphia, Mississippi on a regular basis. Both Stokes and John Carter, the owner of Carter Electric, had worked on the site and were familiar with the plant. At the time of Stokes' accident Carter Electric was under contract with Emerson to install an emergency generator. Carter Electric had a scissor lift2 which it frequently used on the Emerson job site. When Carter Electric was not working on the Emerson plant, its scissor lift remained there unless needed on other Carter Electric jobs.

On the date of the accident, Stokes was dispatched to the Emerson plant to pick up the scissor lift and take it to another job site unrelated to its Emerson contract. Stokes located the scissor lift inside the press department at the Emerson plant and attempted to drive it down the nearest loading ramp. Stokes rode and controlled the scissor lift from the top of its platform which, at the time, was in its lowest position approximately five and a half feet off the ground. Stokes claims that approximately three quarters of the way down the ramp the scissor lift struck some rock or slag and veered off the ramp, injuring Stokes in the fall to the concrete below.

Suit was filed in state court against Emerson and Sky Climber, Inc., manufacturer of the scissor lift, for Stokes' injuries and his wife's loss of consortium. In due course the action was removed to the court a quo. Following discovery, Sky Climber was dismissed and a jury trial proceeded. Stokes testified about rock or slag on the

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ramp, but he did not suggest to the jury, and does not contend in this appeal, that the existence of any obstacle rendered the ramp a dangerous condition. Rather, Stokes maintained that the ramp was defective because the four-inch angle irons lining its edge were incapable of preventing a scissor lift from falling off. Emerson responded that the primary cause of Stokes' injuries was his own negligence, contending that he should have used a forklift to guide or carry the scissor lift out of the building and should have used a ramp with a more gradual incline. At a minimum, Emerson insists, Stokes should have walked alongside the lift, and not ridden it, as it went down the ramp. The jury returned a verdict for $700,000 in favor of Christopher Stokes and $150,000 in favor of his wife and assigned 60% comparative fault to Stokes. The district court entered final judgment in the amounts of $280,000 and$60,000 in favor of Stokes and his wife, respectively.

After the verdict, Emerson renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law, basing same on the proposition that Stokes' employer had control over the work that gave rise to the injury and knowledge of the alleged dangerous condition of the ramp, thus barring any claim by its employee under Mississippi law as interpreted by this court in Hill v. International Paper Co.3 In the alternative, Emerson moved for a new trial, asserting that the trial court erred in not instructing the jury on either of the two exceptions to owner liability described in Hill. The district court denied both motions. Emerson timely appealed.

ANALYSIS

We review the denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law de novo and in accordance with the standards applied by the district court.4 Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate if, after viewing the trial record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, there is no "legally sufficient evidentiary basis" for a reasonable jury to have found for the prevailing party.5 We review the denial of a motion for new trial for abuse of discretion.6 Challenged jury instructions are reviewed to determine whether the instructions, as a whole, constitute a correct statement appropriately instructing the jurors about the principles of the law applicable to the facts of the case.7

This appeal requires a brief summary of the development of the Mississippi law of premises liability as it relates to contractors. At the outset, Mississippi followed the traditional rule that an owner of a premises owed a business invitee the duty to use "ordinary care to have his premises in a reasonably safe condition for use in a manner consistent with the purpose of the invitation."8 With regard to latent dangers, the owner had a duty to remove or alleviate the danger, and if that could not be achieved with reasonable efforts, then a warning of the latent defect was mandated.9 An owner owed no such duty with regard to dangerous conditions that were in plain view and clearly apparent to the invitee, i.e., conditions that were deemed "open and obvious."10

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The relevant provisions of Mississippi law differed, however, when the injured party was an independent contractor, or the employee of an independent contractor. First, the owner had no duty to "protect [a contractor] against risks arising from or intimately connected with defects of the premises, or of machinery or appliances located thereon, which the contractor has undertaken to repair."11 A corollary to this "intimately connected" exception held that a premises owner was not liable where the contractor assumed, "the right and fact of...

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