621 F.2d 715 (5th Cir. 1980), 77-2622, Foster v. Ford Motor Co.

Docket Nº:77-2622.
Citation:621 F.2d 715
Party Name:Luda FOSTER, etc., et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY et al., Defendants-Appellees. McLEAN TRUCKING COMPANY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:July 15, 1980
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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Page 715

621 F.2d 715 (5th Cir. 1980)

Luda FOSTER, etc., et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY et al., Defendants-Appellees.

McLEAN TRUCKING COMPANY, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 77-2622.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

July 15, 1980

Page 716

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 717

John E. Collins, Irving, Tex., Richie & Kernaghan, Shreveport, La., for Foster, etc.

E. Glen Johnson, Gerald Reading Powell, Dallas, Tex., for McLean Trucking Co.

Eugene W. Brees, II, David S. Kidder, Dallas, Tex., for Ford Motor Co.

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

Before CHARLES CLARK, RONEY and HENDERSON, Circuit Judges.

RONEY, Circuit Judge:

This is a products liability case based on diversity jurisdiction arising out of a two truck collision in Dallas County, Texas. The jury found there was no defect in the Ford truck which caused loss of control. Against plaintiffs' claim on appeal that the district court erred in instructing the jury on strict liability only, refusing to instruct on negligence and breach of warranty, and in refusing admission into evidence of a design change made after the manufacture of the truck but before the accident, we affirm.

Thomas D. Foster, a McLean Trucking Co. driver, was killed when his 1975 Ford tractor (truck) and trailer strayed from the eastbound lanes of U.S. Highway 80, into the westbound lanes, and collided with a second truck. Foster's widow and two minor children brought a wrongful death action against Ford Motor Co., the truck's manufacturer, based on strict liability, negligence and breach of warranty, claiming the truck's suspension system was defective. Their action was joined with a claim asserted by McLean Trucking Co., the owner of the truck, for property damage. From a jury verdict for Ford, plaintiffs appeal.

All plaintiffs assert the district court erred in instructing the jury solely on the basis of strict liability and refusing to instruct on the other two theories of recovery, and excluding from evidence a component of the truck's suspension system. In addition, McLean appeals the district court's refusal to permit testimony concerning Ford's failure to respond to McLean's informal requests for information regarding the questioned component.

The factual issues in the case focused on the safety of the Ford truck's left front suspension. Plaintiffs sought to establish that a dowel pin came loose from its press-fitting and fell into a hole in the truck's axle pad, allowing the left front spacer block, caster wedge, spring leafs and U-bolts to shift, resulting in loss of control of the vehicle. The parties stipulated that the dowel pin fell into the axle pad some time before the collision. The point in controversy was whether the vehicle was thereby rendered defective.

Ford argued that the dowel was merely a manufacturing locater pin, intentionally designed without structural strength, and suggested that the mishap occurred because of a variety of factors, including poor weather conditions, an uneven roadway and a braking problem unrelated to the allegedly defective dowel.

Plaintiffs argue the district court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on the issues of negligence and breach of warranty, although an instruction under a strict liability theory was submitted. Texas law applies to the substantive issues in this case. Erie R. R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938). The manner of giving jury instructions, however, is a matter of federal, not state law. McCullough v. Beech Aircraft Corp., 587 F.2d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 1979). In examining jury instructions, we consider the charge as a whole. Harless v. Boyle-Midway Division, American Home Products, 594 F.2d 1051 (5th Cir. 1979). The jury should be instructed on a legal theory only if the evidence adduced at trial is sufficient to justify such an instruction. See Liner v. J. B. Talley & Co., 618 F.2d 327, 330-31 (5th Cir. 1980); Lyle v. Bentley, 406 F.2d 325, 327 (5th Cir. 1969).

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The heart of plaintiffs' theory was that the spacer block assembly was defectively designed. According to the testimony, the front axle of the 1975 WT9000 Series Ford truck was attached to the suspending leaf springs by two U-shaped bolts on the left and right front sides. The two bolts secured a sandwich of parts which included, among other things, a cast metal spacer block, and a caster wedge. A steel pin, with slanted or chamfered edges, was pressed into the bottom side of the block, and it was this pin which was stipulated to have dropped into the axle pad hole. As a result, according to plaintiffs' theory, the truck's entire front end assembly shifted and caused a loss of control in the vehicle. Plaintiffs argued that had Ford installed a one-inch dowel pin in the spacer block to prevent the caster wedge from slipping out, then vibration and other forces normally encountered in routine heavy truck operations would not have resulted in a shifting of the assembly, and control of the vehicle would have been maintained.

Ford's position was that the dowel pin was merely a vestigial part from the assembly process, and that the pin, which possessed no structural strength on its own, served only as a locater to guide the various components including the caster wedge, spacer block, leaf springs and securing U-shaped bolts into position. Thereafter, the pin played no role in the truck's stability, and so long as the U-shaped bolts were periodically tightened according to Ford's recommended procedures, the vehicle would perform according to specifications. Ford recommended, as part of its routine service procedures, checking and possible re-torquing of the U-shaped bolts every 6,000 miles, although it was plaintiff McLean's experience that a formal check was required only at 40,000 mile intervals. The testimony indicated that Foster's truck, which at the time of the accident had been driven 116,000 miles, had undergone the U-bolt tightening procedure only 4,000 miles prior to the fatal mishap. There was also testimony suggesting that even were plaintiffs' theory of the accident correct, the U-shaped bolts would not loosen after 4,000 miles of operation, considering the vehicle's overall mileage.

Texas has adopted the theory of strict liability, as enunciated in Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A (1965). Rourke v. Garza, 530 S.W.2d 794, 798 (Tex.1975); Darryl v. Ford Motor Co., 440 S.W.2d 630 (Tex.1969). Strict liability states a theory of recovery distinct from common law negligence. Turner v. General Motors Corp., 584 S.W.2d 844, 854 (Tex.1979) (Campbell, J., concurring); Signal Oil & Gas Co. v. Universal Oil Products, 572 S.W.2d 320, 324-26 (Tex.1978). Breach of an implied warranty of merchantability, as pled in this case, states yet a third theory of recovery in Texas. See Tex.Bus. & Com.Code Ann. tit. 1, § 2.314 (Vernon 1968); Nobility Homes, Inc. v. Shivers, 557 S.W.2d 77 (Tex.1977). Plaintiffs argue the three theories differ according to their focus. For strict liability, they argue, the factfinder scrutinizes the product itself to determine whether it is "unreasonably dangerous." See Turner v. General Motors Corp., 584 S.W.2d 844; Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A, comment i (1965). In considering a negligence theory the focus, according to plaintiffs, is upon the conduct of the manufacturer or supplier. Gonzalez v. Caterpillar Tractor Co., 571 S.W.2d 867, 871 (Tex.1978). Finally, in the warranty context, the issue is the utility of the product, because...

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