283 F.3d 33 (2nd Cir. 2002), 99-9405, Jarvis v. Ford Motor Co.

Docket Nº:Docket Nos. 99-9405 (L), 00-9215 (CON)
Citation:283 F.3d 33
Case Date:February 07, 2002
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

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283 F.3d 33 (2nd Cir. 2002)




Docket Nos. 99-9405 (L), 00-9215 (CON)

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

February 7, 2002

May 14, 2001

Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Naomi Reice Buchwald, Judge) granting, inter alia, defendant-appellee's motions for judgment as a matter of law and for relief from an inconsistent verdict. We hold that there was a legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for plaintiff-appellant and, therefore, we vacate the judgment as a matter of law entered in defendant-appellee's favor and remand for the district court to reinstate the jury verdict and award of damages. We also find that defendant-appellee's claim of error arising from an allegedly inconsistent verdict was not adequately preserved and find no fundamental error in the jury instructions and verdict form. Finally, finding no abuse of discretion in the district court's failure to hold a hearing, we affirm the district court's determination of the amount by which the jury award should be adjusted to reflect collateral source payments pursuant to N.Y.C.P.L.R. 4545(c).

Vacated and remanded in part, affirmed in part.

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Thomas J. Murray, Murray & Murray Co., L.P.A., Sandusky, Ohio (George N. Page 38

Tompkins, Jr., Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis Llp, New York, Ny, and Mary S. Birkett on the brief), for plaintiff-appellant. Jeffrey C. Sendziak, Gibson, McAskill & Crosby, Buffalo, NY (Brian P. Crosby on the brief), for defendant-appellee.

Before: Oakes, Van Graafeiland, and Sotomayor, Circuit Judges.

Sotomayor, Circuit Judge.

Judge VanGraafeiland concurs in part and dissents in part in a separate opinion

A six-day-old 1991 Ford Aerostar driven by plaintiff-appellant Kathleen Jarvis suddenly accelerated, resulting in an accident from which Jarvis sustained serious injuries. Jarvis contends that the Aerostar "took off" without her depressing the accelerator and that she was unable to stop the van by pumping the brakes.

Jarvis sued defendant-appellee Ford Motor Company ("Ford") in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Buchwald, J.) claiming, inter alia, that Ford was negligent and should be held strictly liable for the design of the Aerostar's cruise control mechanism. A jury returned a verdict for Jarvis on her negligence claim but not on her strict products liability claim and awarded her damages. Ford objected to the verdict as inconsistent. The district court agreed but did not assign a remedy because it held that the evidence was insufficient to support a verdict for Jarvis, granting Ford's Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law and dismissing the complaint. For the sake of completeness, the court also granted Ford's motion to reduce the amount of the verdict because of collateral source payments pursuant to N.Y.C.P.L.R. 4545.

We vacate the grant of judgment as a matter of law for Ford and remand for the district court to reinstate the jury verdict and award of damages as adjusted by the collateral source payments. Jarvis's evidence, if credited by the jury, was sufficient to establish that the Aerostar malfunctioned due to Ford's negligent design. To prove negligence, Jarvis was not required to establish what specific defect caused the Aerostar to malfunction. Ford, for its part, did not prove that a malfunction was so unlikely as to warrant judgment as a matter of law in its favor.

We also hold that the district court failed to apply the correct legal standard to Ford's objection to an allegedly inconsistent verdict. Applying the correct standard under Fed. R. Civ. P. 51, we find that Ford waived any claim of error by failing to state distinctly the nature and basis of its objection before the jury retired to deliberate and that there was no fundamental error in the jury instructions or verdict sheet warranting relief on appeal. Finally, we hold that the district court did not abuse its discretion in not conducting a hearing on collateral source payments, as Jarvis failed to raise a disputed issue of material fact regarding Ford's evidence of such payments.


Viewed in the light most favorable to Jarvis as the party challenging the grant of judgment as a matter of law, the record presents the following facts.

A. The Accident

Jarvis testified at trial that, in 1991, she started her six-day-old Ford Aerostar in the driveway of her home in rural Woodstock, New York with her right foot "lightly on the brake." After she turned on the ignition, the engine suddenly revved and the vehicle "took off." As the van Page 39

accelerated, Jarvis pumped the brake with both feet, looking down to make sure her feet were on the brake pedal. The van would not stop. She steered to avoid people walking in the road and then heard saplings brushing against the side of the van before she blacked out. Jarvis testified that she had driven many different kinds of vehicles over the twenty-four years since she had first acquired a driver's license, and that, prior to this incident, she had never had a driving accident.

Jarvis's father, who was standing nearby, testified that he saw the car starting off at an "unusually fast speed" for his daughter. As the Aerostar passed him, he saw Jarvis "holding on to the steering wheel very tight and her body was going back and forth ever so slight[ly]." Jarvis's father testified that as Jarvis was removed from the van after the accident, she screamed, "there's something wrong. The brakes don't work. There's something wrong with that car. The brakes don't work." As a result of the accident, Jarvis sustained a traumatic head injury and could not return to her previous employment.

Plaintiff's reconstruction expert, George Pope, testified that the van traveled approximately 330 feet and did some braking that slowed it to 15 to 20 miles per hour before it entered a ditch and turned over. Pope testified that the Aerostar had vacuum power brakes that draw their vacuum from the engine, but that the engine does not create the necessary vacuum when accelerating full throttle. Even though a check valve traps a reservoir of vacuum for use when the engine vacuum is low, this reserve can be depleted after one-and-a-half hard brake applications. Therefore, according to Pope, if Jarvis were pumping the brakes in an effort to stop the Aerostar after it began accelerating at full throttle, she would lose approximately one thousand pounds of additional force that the booster normally could supply to her brakes. Pope concluded that "under those circumstances []it will feel to a person like they've lost their brakes, [because] they're pushing and nothing is happening."

Joanne Valentine-Simonian, a passerby, testified that she watched Jarvis's van pass and that she saw the van moving quickly down the road and ran toward the woods. As she looked back to see the van pass, she did not see any brake lights. A police officer who was called to the scene of the accident testified that he saw no marks on the road near the accident except in the ditch where the Aerostar turned over. Jarvis's father had been the last one to use the Aerostar before the accident. When asked at trial whether he had left the parking brake on, Jarvis's father testified that it was his "normal habit" to put it on, but that he had "no memory of it as such" in this case. When asked directly, he answered, "I'm not certain I put it in with the parking brake on." Pope testified that the Aerostar has two instrument panel lights related to the braking system. When the parking brake is left on, a red light is illuminated on the right side of the dash below the horizontal center point. A second light, amber in color and located on the upper left corner of the dash panel, is related to the rear anti-lock brake system and will illuminate for two seconds after the ignition is turned on and the van moves forward while the system reviews its components to ensure that they are fucntioning properly. Jarvis testified that she saw one white or light yellow light illuminated high on the dashboard toward the left and that, "as I'm recalling[,] it said brake." Asked specifically if she had seen a red light illuminated on the panel from the beginning to the end of the incident, she answered no.

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In support of Jarvis's claim that the Aerostar had suddenly accelerated without her pressing the accelerator, Jarvis presented testimony from other Aerostar owners who recounted having similar problems. Jacqueline Gibbs testified that she had her foot on the brake the entire time her 1989 Aerostar sped away, yet engineers at Ford could later find nothing mechanically wrong with the van. David Neil Morse testified that a two-day-old 1990 Aerostar he was driving opened up, full throttle, while he was stopped at a gas station and that, even though he weighed 200 pounds and pushed as hard as he could on the brake pedal, he only managed to stop the vehicle by turning off the ignition. 1 TheDA Gayle Blackstone testified that, when she attempted to restart her 1990 Aerostar at a gas station and put it in gear, even though her foot was on the brake, it "absolutely roared and leapt out" hitting cars and continuing onto the highway causing accidents. Mary Moore testified that in 1989 she started her Aerostar in a shopping center parking lot and it began to accelerate in reverse, even though she had her foot on the brake. Linda Karen...

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