36 F.3d 1396 (8th Cir. 1994), 93-1239, McKnight By and Through Ludwig v. Johnson Controls, Inc.

Docket Nº:93-1239.
Citation:36 F.3d 1396
Party Name:Randy C. McKNIGHT, a minor, By and Through his next friend, Dessie LUDWIG, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. JOHNSON CONTROLS, INC., Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:September 30, 1994
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
 
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Page 1396

36 F.3d 1396 (8th Cir. 1994)

Randy C. McKNIGHT, a minor, By and Through his next friend,

Dessie LUDWIG, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

JOHNSON CONTROLS, INC., Defendant-Appellant.

No. 93-1239.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

September 30, 1994

Submitted Sept. 15, 1993.

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Arthur L. Klein, Chicago, IL, argued (Louis A. Lehr, Jr., David B. Goodman, Craig F. Lowther, and Greggory D. Groves, on the brief), for appellant.

Donald E. Woody, Springfield, MO, argued (Monte P. Clithero, Kerry L. Middleton and Warren E. Harris, on the brief), for appellee.

Before MAGILL, Circuit Judge, LAY, Senior Circuit Judge, and HANSEN, Circuit Judge.

HANSEN, Circuit Judge.

Johnson Controls, Inc. (JCI), appeals from the district court's order denying its motion for judgment as a matter of law or new trial after a jury returned a $1.2 million verdict for McKnight in this battery explosion case. JCI argues that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the only evidence to support the verdict should not have been admitted by the district court. JCI asserts that the district court erred in admitting: experimental evidence not generated under conditions substantially similar to the accident conditions; the testimony and test results of McKnight's expert without requiring the proper foundation for his qualification as an expert; and speculative testimony from McKnight's expert about a key issue--the existence of a manufacturing defect. JCI also argues that the above alleged evidentiary errors coupled with the following additional errors require a new trial: allowing McKnight's expert to testify that the accident battery was unreasonably dangerous; denying JCI's request to examine McKnight's exemplar battery; admitting exhibits and testimony regarding JCI's prior testing of other companies' batteries; admitting evidence of another similar accident; denying JCI's attempt to supplement the record on the other similar accident; instructing the jury on the elements of McKnight's negligence claim; and failing to give two jury instructions JCI requested. After a thorough review which included reading the transcript of a week-long trial, we affirm.

I.

On August 10, 1988, Randy C. McKnight, a 16-year-old Missouri resident, was permanently blinded in one eye when an automobile battery designed and manufactured by JCI, a Wisconsin company, exploded. On the day of the accident, McKnight borrowed a friend's car and drove it to his residence. He shut off the ignition for a few minutes while he went inside. When he returned to the car, it would not start. He popped the hood and twisted the battery cable on the negative terminal attempting to get a better connection. He tried the car again, and it still would not start. He again attempted to get a better connection by twisting the battery cable and repeated this procedure two or three times. When he twisted the battery cable on the last attempt, the battery exploded. The battery had been purchased at a local store six to eight months earlier.

McKnight filed this products liability action against JCI. The case eventually went to trial on McKnight's claims of strict product liability and negligent design or manufacturing defect. The parties agreed that the explosion occurred when a spark from the battery ignited hydrogen gas escaping from the battery. The issue for trial was whether the hydrogen explosion occurred as a result of a defect in the battery before it was

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shipped by JCI or from damage to the battery's vent caps caused by improper care for or use of the battery after it was purchased.

The case was tried the first time in March 1992. The jury could not reach a verdict, and a mistrial was declared. On retrial in September 1992, McKnight prevailed, and the jury awarded him $1.2 million in compensatory damages. The district court denied JCI's motion for judgment as a matter of law and its alternative motion for new trial. JCI appeals.

II.

We review the district court's denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law de novo using the same standards as the district court. 1 Amerinet, Inc. v. Xerox Corp., 972 F.2d 1483, 1505 (8th Cir.1992), cert. denied --- U.S. ----, 113 S.Ct. 1048, 122 L.Ed.2d 356 (1993). A motion for judgment as a matter of law presents a legal question to the district court and to this court on review: "whether there is sufficient evidence to support a jury verdict." White v. Pence, 961 F.2d 776, 779 (8th Cir.1992). We view the "evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party and must not engage in a weighing or evaluation of the evidence or consider questions of credibility." Id. Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate only when all of the evidence points one way and is "susceptible of no reasonable inference sustaining the position of the nonmoving party." Id. 2

We apply a much more deferential standard in our review of a district court's denial of a motion for a new trial under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a). "The [district] court's decision will not be reversed by a court of appeals in the absence of a clear abuse of discretion." Lowe v. E.I. DuPont de NeMours & Co., 802 F.2d 310, 310-11 (8th Cir.1986) (citations omitted); see also 1 Steven Alan Childress & Martha S. Davis, Federal Standards of Review Sec. 5.08, at 5-69 (2d ed. 1992) ("The trial court's decision generally is committed to its discretion."). The key question is whether a new trial should have been granted to avoid a miscarriage of justice. See Beckman v. Mayo Found., 804 F.2d 435, 439 (8th Cir.1986) ("The district court can only disturb a jury verdict to prevent a miscarriage of justice.").

JCI's argument for judgment as a matter of law focuses on the testimony of Dr. Jacobson, McKnight's expert witness. JCI argues the district court should have excluded his testimony on a number of grounds and that when the testimony is properly excluded from the record, this court must enter judgment as a matter of law because there is no evidence to support the jury verdict. Alternatively, JCI argues that the errors in admitting Jacobson's testimony or any of a number of other errors the district court committed, at a minimum, entitle JCI to a new trial.

III.

JCI first argues that the district court erroneously allowed McKnight to introduce evidence of experiments conducted by his expert, Dr. Jacobson, without making any showing that the experiments were conducted under conditions substantially similar to the conditions existing at the time of the actual accident. JCI argues that this evidence

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should have been excluded and that without this evidence JCI was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Alternatively, JCI argues that the erroneous admission of this evidence requires a new trial.

Jacobson performed his experiments on an Alpha 3 400/36 Group 24C automobile battery manufactured by JCI, the same type of battery which exploded. He performed two tests on this exemplar battery: a "coordinate test" and a "leak test." The "coordinate test" purported to provide exact measurements of both the perimeter of the sealing surface of the vent caps that plug the battery wells containing the hydrogen gas and the perimeter of the walls of the corresponding battery vent wells the vent caps are supposed to seal. (Tr. Vol. III at 71-87.) Jacobson acquired these measurements from another laboratory, which utilized a "coordinate measuring device" to take the measurements on the exemplar battery. 3 (Id. at 71.) The purpose of the test was to determine how well the vent caps fit the wells, which would indicate how well the seal created between the two surfaces contained the hydrogen gas.

The "leak test" purported to determine whether any gas in fact could escape the battery's sealing mechanisms. (Id. at 88-104.) Jacobson used a "sniffer" device to detect whether any gas could escape from the battery. (Id. at 91.) In conducting the leak test, Jacobson used helium gas instead of hydrogen gas, which is normally contained in the battery. (Id. at 88.) Jacobson also drained the electrolyte fluid from the battery and pumped helium into the battery, creating pressures inside the battery ranging from one pound per square inch (psi) to five psi during the testing. (Id. at 100-101.) Jacobson also plugged the holes in the battery vent caps to obtain some of his measurements. (Id. at 92-93.) The evidence is unrefuted that at the time of the accident, the battery was full of electrolyte fluid, operating at zero psi (because the car engine was off), and that the vent caps would not have been plugged.

We have previously made the following observations about the admissibility of experimental tests in products liability cases:

The admissibility of evidence of experimental tests rests largely in the discretion of the trial judge and his decision will not be overturned absent a clear showing of an abuse of discretion. A court may properly admit experimental evidence if the tests were conducted under conditions substantially similar to the actual conditions. Admissibility, however, does not depend on perfect identity between actual and experimental conditions.

Champeau v. Fruehauf Corp., 814 F.2d 1271, 1278 (8th Cir.1987) (internal quotations and citations omitted) (emphasis added). This foundational requirement for the admission of experimental evidence is very well established in this circuit and others. See, e.g., Cowens v. Siemens-Elema AB, 837 F.2d 817, 820 (8th Cir.1988); Hale v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 820 F.2d 928, 932 (8th Cir.1987) (Hale II ); see also Gilbert v. Cosco Inc., 989 F.2d 399, 402 (10th Cir.1993) (burden is on proponent to demonstrate similarity of circumstances...

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