Arnold v. Ingersoll-Rand Co.

Decision Date02 June 1992
Docket NumberNo. 74471,INGERSOLL-RAND,74471
Citation834 S.W.2d 192
PartiesProd.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 13,188 Darryl ARNOLD and Linda Arnold, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v.COMPANY, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

J. William Newbold, Dudley W. Von Holt, St. Louis, William H. Robinson, Jr., Charles M. Allen, Richmond, Va., for defendant-appellant.

Gary R. Sarachan, Allan R. Belliveau, James F. Koester, St. Louis, plaintiffs-respondents.

BENTON, Judge.

Defendant Ingersoll-Rand Company appealed the decision of the Circuit Court of St. Louis City in a product liability case to the Court of Appeals, Eastern District which affirmed the trial court. This Court granted transfer on the specific questions whether plaintiffs' "failure to warn" claim was submissible and whether the circuit court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on Darryl Arnold's contributory fault. This Court now reverses on these two issues and remands for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

Defendant manufactures a five-horsepower air compressor which was used at the auto repair shop where plaintiff Darryl Arnold worked. Within the air compressor, an automatic pressure switch turns the machine "off" when the pressure of the air stored exceeds a preset level, and "on" when the air pressure falls below another level. In the act of turning "on," the switch creates a small spark that can ignite flammable fumes. Defendant neither makes an airtight pressure switch for this model nor informs customers that the pressure switch is not airtight. An airtight switch would prevent the spark from contacting, and thus igniting, any fumes near the switch. Some companies do, however, make airtight switches--priced somewhere between $20 and $105 each--that can be used with this model.

On February 3, 1986, Darryl Arnold was the mechanic in charge of the shop at Rich's Auto Repair and Wrecker Service. During the morning, one repair job was draining a mixture of water and gas from the tank of a car in the garage area of the shop. In this area four bay doors could have been open; but three remained closed, with one door half-open during the draining. Testimony conflicted as to the strength of gasoline fumes during this process. Regardless of how noticeable the fumes were, the witnesses agreed that all doors should be open when draining a gasoline tank, and that other safety precautions should be taken.

At some time between 12:30 p.m. and 1 p.m., an explosion occurred in the storage room of Rich's Auto Repair. The storage room was connected to the garage area by an open door. In addition to the air compressor, the storage room also contained a water heater and a gas furnace. The fireball from the explosion swept through the garage area where Darryl Arnold was working. This explosion occurred about the same time the compressor "kicked on" with witnesses disputing which came first--the "kicking on" or the explosion. As a result of this explosion, Darryl suffered third degree burns; his spouse Linda claims indirect damages.

Trial began October 2, 1989. On October 5, 1989, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs, $1,250,000 for Darryl Arnold and $250,000 for Linda Arnold.

I. Failure to Warn--MAI 25.05

This Court granted transfer on the question whether the circuit court erred in giving a failure to warn instruction, on the facts of the case. Defendant's precise challenge to the giving of MAI 25.05 is that there was insufficient evidence that the failure to warn was a cause of the injuries suffered by plaintiffs. Plaintiffs offer two alternate theories of causation: 1) if a warning had been given, the supplier would not have sold the air compressor to Rich's Auto Repair; and 2) if a warning had been given, Darryl Arnold would have altered his behavior on February 3, 1986.

On the first theory of causation, a rational jury could perhaps (imaginatively) find that the lack of information at the time of purchase was a "but for" cause of the explosion. This theory, however, ignores any reasonable concept of proximate cause. That information affecting the sale of a product could proximately cause injury from its use defies logic. To accept this claim as legally sound would be an unprecedented extension of liability. Plaintiffs cite no cases supporting this theory of causation, and this Court finds none. Instead, the traditional approach to proximate cause in failure to warn cases focuses on the effect of giving a warning on the actual circumstances surrounding the accident. See Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 433; cf. Nesselrode v. Executive Beechcraft, Inc., 707 S.W.2d 371, 385 (Mo. banc 1986).

In response to the second theory of causation--that a warning would have altered Darryl Arnold's behavior--defendant cites Darryl's testimony that he had not smelled gas before the explosion and that he had disregarded proper safety precautions while draining the gas tank. Claiming that these admissions by a party-opponent bind plaintiffs, defendant argues that no rational jury could find that an explicit warning would have altered Darryl's behavior. Plaintiffs contend that the absence of a warning creates a rebuttable presumption that such a warning will be heeded, which makes the issue of causation a jury issue. In addition, there were other mechanics in the shop besides Darryl Arnold who might have heeded such a warning. Thus, even if Darryl's behavior would not have been altered by a warning, there remains the question of whether anyone else would have acted, based on the warning, to prevent the explosion of February 3, 1986. Each of these alternate theories subtly twist the causation element of a failure to warn case.

Causation in a failure to warn case involves two separate requirements. First, the plaintiffs' injuries must be caused by the product from which the warning is missing. There is sufficient evidence in the present case to raise a legitimate jury question whether the air compressor caused the plaintiffs' injuries.

Second, plaintiffs must show that a warning would have altered the behavior of the individuals involved in the accident. Missouri, like several other states, aids plaintiffs in proving this second part of causation by presuming that a warning will be heeded. See Duke v. Gulf & Western Mfg. Co., 660 S.W.2d 404, 419 (Mo.App.1983). The discussion of this presumption in Duke shows that it is not as simple as plaintiffs contend.

The presumption that plaintiffs will heed a warning assumes that a reasonable person will act appropriately if given adequate information. Thus, a preliminary inquiry before applying the presumption is whether adequate information is available absent a warning. In Duke, the court of appeals proceeded to recognize a presumption that a warning would be heeded only after finding that there was a legitimate jury question whether the plaintiff did not already know the danger. Duke, 660 S.W.2d at 418-19. As causation is a required element of the plaintiffs' case, the burden is on plaintiffs to show that lack of knowledge.

In this case, plaintiffs' evidence does not indicate that a warning would have imparted additional information. Instead, the testimony of each of the mechanics present, the shop owner, and the parts supplier (who stopped by the shop on the morning of the explosion) indicated that they all knew that there was a danger of an explosion if gas fumes accumulated in the shop. Thus, plaintiffs failed to present any evidence suggesting that a warning would have imparted additional information. Absent such a showing, the presumption that a warning would be heeded is not applicable. Thus, plaintiffs did not meet their burden of proof on the element of causation and the instruction on failure to warn should not have been submitted to the jury.

II. Contributory Fault--MAI 32.23

The second issue on transfer is whether the circuit court erred in refusing to instruct on contributory fault, MAI 32.23. This issue turns on whether Darryl Arnold knew the danger posed by the air compressor. Darryl's own testimony provides evidence that, at the very least, he knew that he should not operate several machines, including the air compressor, in the presence of gas fumes. While there was no evidence that he knew the precise part (a spark from the non-airtight pressure switch) of the air compressor that could ignite gas fumes, a rational jury could infer that he knew the danger of an explosion if the air compressor was used in the presence of gas fumes. Other witnesses testified that Darryl engaged in behavior that posed a risk of accumulation of gas fumes and that there was in fact such an accumulation--testimony from which a rational jury could infer that Darryl Arnold knew that there was an accumulation of gas fumes. In short, on the basis of the evidence given at trial, a rational jury could find that Darryl Arnold "voluntarily and ...

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1 books & journal articles
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