268 S.E.2d 504 (N.C. 1980), 108, Smith v. Fiber Controls Corp.

Docket Nº:108.
Citation:268 S.E.2d 504, 300 N.C. 669
Case Date:July 15, 1980
Court:Supreme Court of North Carolina

Page 504

268 S.E.2d 504 (N.C. 1980)

300 N.C. 669

James Keith SMITH



No. 108.

Supreme Court of North Carolina.

July 15, 1980

Page 505

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 506

Homesley, Jones, Gaines, Dixon & Fields by Edmund L. Gaines, Statesville, for plaintiff-appellant.

Golding, Crews, Meekins, Gordon & Gray by James P. Crews, and Rodney A. Dean, Charlotte, for defendant-appellee.

HUSKINS, Justice:

Since the result we reach is dictated by the jury's answer to the contributory negligence issue, we assume arguendo, without deciding, that there was sufficient evidence of defendant's negligence to carry the case to the jury and support an affirmative answer to the first issue. Moreover, by reason of the verdict on the contributory negligence issue, we find it unnecessary to determine whether the evidence shows that plaintiff was guilty of contributory negligence as a matter of law.

This is a product liability action tried upon a theory of negligence. Plaintiff seeks to recover for injuries which he alleges were proximately caused by defendant's negligence in the design and manufacture of a "fine opener," a machine used in the yarn industry to mix and blend fibers.

In a product liability action founded on negligence, "(t)here is no doubt that . . . (plaintiff's) contributory negligence will bar his recovery to the same extent as in any other negligence case." W. Prosser, Law of Torts § 102 at 670 (4th ed. 1971). Accord, 1 L. Frumer & M. Friedman, Products Liability § 13.01 (1979); Douglas v. Mallison, 265 N.C. 362, 144 S.E.2d 138 (1965); G.S. 99B-4(3) (effective 1 October 1979). In the instant case, defendant's evidence, elicited through cross-examination, tended to show that plaintiff's contributory negligence was a proximate cause of the injury complained of. Accordingly, the contributory negligence issue was submitted to the jury, and plaintiff was found contributorily negligent as alleged.

Page 507

[300 N.C. 673] The dispositive issue on this appeal is whether there was sufficient evidence to carry the case to the jury on the question of contributory negligence.

An apt statement of the doctrine of contributory negligence for purposes of this appeal is found in Clark v. Roberts, 263 N.C. 336, 139 S.E.2d 593 (1965):

"Every person having the capacity to exercise ordinary care for his own safety against injury is required by law to do so, and if he fails to exercise such care, and such failure, concurring and cooperating with the actionable negligence of defendant contributes to the injury complained of, he is guilty of contributory negligence. Ordinary care is such care as an ordinarily prudent person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances to avoid injury. (Citations omitted.)

Plaintiff is subject to this universal rule, but his conduct on this occasion 'must be judged in the light of the general principle that the law does not require a person to shape his behavior by circumstances of which he is justifiably ignorant, and the resultant particular rule that a plaintiff cannot be guilty of contributory negligence unless he acts or fails to act with knowledge and appreciation, either actual or constructive, of the danger of injury which his conduct involves.' (Citations omitted)" (Emphasis added).

In order for contributory negligence to apply, it is not necessary that plaintiff be actually aware of the unreasonable danger of injury to which his conduct exposes him. Plaintiff may be contributorily negligent if his conduct ignores unreasonable risks or dangers which would have been apparent to a prudent person exercising ordinary care for his own safety. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 466(b) and Comment f, W. Prosser, supra, § 65 at 424. Accord, Clark v. Roberts, supra. Simply put, the existence of contributory negligence does not depend on plaintiff's subjective appreciation of danger; rather, contributory negligence consists of conduct which fails to conform to an objective standard of behavior "such care as an ordinarily prudent person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances to avoid injury." Clark v. Roberts, supra.

Viewed in the light most favorable to defendant, the evidence pertinent to contributory negligence tends to show that [300 N.C. 674] plaintiff had been employed at Carolina Mills, a yarn mill, for three months. The only job he held at the mill during this period was that of a picker tender. Plaintiff stood at a huge machine called a picker a long machine that beat and fluffed the material as it passed through and, in the final stage, pressed it into a roll. Plaintiff's job was to remove the rolls of material as they emerged from the picker. Additionally, plaintiff was to make minor repairs on the picker. Among the minor repairs plaintiff engaged in was the removal of "wrap-ups" from the machinery. "A wrap-up is when material wraps around a roller or any part of a machine that prevents it from doing its job sufficiently." (Plaintiff's testimony, Record p. 70)

Plaintiff knew that inside the picker were heavy, spiked cylinders which turned rapidly while the picker was operating and continued to turn for some time or "coast" after the picker was shut down. "The pickers do have wheels or rotors or boards or whatever inside that turn with these spikes on them to open the fibers. I knew that those heavy rollers were inside the pickers. When you would turn off the picker the heavy rollers and cylinders inside would continue to turn. I knew that on the machines that did this kind of job there were heavy rotors that continued to turn after the power was turned off. . . ." (Plaintiff's testimony, Record p. 106) Plaintiff further testified that the rotors were turned by leather belts on pulleys which were...

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