Beloit Corp. v. Harrell

Decision Date01 October 1976
Citation339 So.2d 992
PartiesBELOIT CORPORATION, a corporation v. Kenneth G. HARRELL, American Can Co., a corporation (Intervenor). SC 1406.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

Lyons, Pipes & Cook, and Norton Brooker, Jr., Mobile, Hill, Hill, Carter, Franco, Cole & Black, Montgomery, for appellant.

Cunningham, Bounds, Byrd, Yance & Crowder, Mobile, Hardin, Stuart, Moncus & Noojin, Birmingham, for appellee.

JONES, Justice.

This 312 personal injury action 1 arose when the plaintiff's (Kenneth Harrell's) hands were caught by the in-running nips of a papermaking machine which was manufactured by the defendant, Beloit Corporation. Harrell's employer, American Can Company, paid workmen's compensation benefits and intervened as a party plaintiff.

THE FACTS

In late 1959, Beloit sold this papermaking machine to Marathon Paper Company who subsequently sold their operation to American Can Company. Shortly after the installation of the machine, an air chute was removed by American Can. The evidence is conflicting as to whether this chute was an automatic feeding device, although there seemed to be a general agreement that this device did not work properly on heavier grades of paper. Employees of American Can testified that the chute was removed because it did not work. American Can also removed certain doctor blades from the machine. While the evidence is conflicting as to the function of these blades, even Beloit's expert witness admits that they were not safety guards and that various problems occurred with respect to the operation of these blades. American Can employees testified that, just as in the case of the chute, the blades were taken off because they did not function properly.

This machine consists of wet and dry calendar stacks. The paper is threaded through various nip points between each roll in the calendars. The nip is the area between any two in-running rolls facing a Just prior to the accident a sheet of paper being processed broke and it became necessary to rethread the machine. Harrell went to a catwalk on the back side of the dry calendar with an air hose. The sheet of paper being rethreaded was thrown into the top nip and the paper began to wrap around the top roll instead of threading properly. Harrell was attempting to blow the paper off the roll with an air hose when his right hand became caught in the nip. He immediately attempted to pull out the hose with his left hand and it too was caught.

workman and is similar to a wringer-type washing machine.

Harrell's injuries may be summarized as follows: On the right hand the thumb was denuded; the little finger was split from the tip to the palm; the denuded proximal phalanx was all that remained of the ring finger; the other two fingers were severed; and, during surgery, the metacarpals were shortened because they were no longer functional. On the left hand, the thumb was intact but a completely denuded index finger was the only finger remaining; and the metacarpals were also shortened during surgery. Each upper extremity was 95% Permanently disabled which, according to the medical testimony, was translated into 75% Permanent partial disability to the body as a whole.

At the close of the trial, and after the jury had been charged, the plaintiff began making his exceptions to the charges. Whereupon, the Court recessed and the Judge did not allow Harrell to complete his objection and exceptions nor was Beloit allowed any opportunity to object or except. The trial Judge granted each attorney an exception to the entire charge that was submitted to the jury. A verdict was returned in favor of Harrell in the amount of $800,000.

THE ISSUES PRESENTED

Three primary issues are presented:

1) Beloit claims error in the denial of its motion for a directed verdict, asserting two separate contentions:

(a) that the sole proximate cause of Harrell's injuries consists in the acts of American Can in positioning Harrell on the catwalk and furnishing him with a rubber hose to thread the paper, coupled with the removal of the air chute and doctor blades.

(b) that Beloit owed no duty to protect Harrell because the conditions which caused the injuries were open and obvious and known by Harrell to exist.

The first primary issue (the denial of a directed verdict) in its two aspects, then, may be summarized:

(a) whether, as a matter of law, the modification of the machinery by American Can constituted sufficient intervening cause to absolve Beloit from liability;

(b) whether, as a matter of law, the open and obvious doctrine should have been applied.

2) Beloit urges that reversible error was committed by the trial Judge when Beloit was denied the right to make specific objections to the Court's charges before the jury retired, even though counsel was allowed to except to all charges given.

The second issue, then, is: whether the denial of the right to make specific objections to the trial Court's charge before the jury retired was reversible error even though the charges themselves were not erroneous.

3) Beloit urges this Court to find that the amount awarded Harrell as damages was so excessive that it clearly shows bias, prejudice or mistake and an abuse of discretion by the jury.

THE DECISION
I. The Directed Verdict Issue.

Under established Alabama law, in civil cases, the function of an appellate court in reviewing a motion for a directed verdict is to '(r)eview the tendencies of the evidence most favorable to the (party moved against), regardless of any view we may have as to the weight of the evidence and we must allow such reasonable inferences as the jury were free to draw, not inferences which we may think the more probable.' Alabama Power Company v. Irwin, 260 Ala. 673, 72 So.2d 300 (1954); Briggs v. Birmingham Railway Light & Power Company, 188 Ala. 262, 66 So. 95 (1914).

As more recently stated in Ford Motor Company v. Rodgers, Ala., 337 So.2d 736 (1976):

'In determining the propriety of granting a motion for a directed verdict the court must indulge every inference in favor of the non-moving parties. ARCP, Rule 50; Alabama Power Company v. Taylor, 293 Ala. 484, 306 So.2d 236 (1975).'

A. Intervening Cause Defense.

We have reviewed the trial Court's entire instruction to the jury, placing particular emphasis on that portion of the charge dealing with proximate cause and intervening cause. We find that under this instruction, including five charges requested in writing by Beloit concerning proximate cause, this question was properly submitted to the jury; and we further find that there is sufficient evidence to support its finding that Beloit's negligent design was the proximate cause, or the proximate contributing cause, of the injury.

A basic principle of tort law, so fundamental as to require no citation, is that a tort-feasor whose act or acts contributes in causing an injury may be held liable for the entire resulting loss. Butler v. Olsham,280 Ala. 181, 191 So.2d 7 (1966); see also Prosser, Law of Torts, 4th Ed., pp. 291--323 (1971).

Indeed, the following two charges given at Beloit's request recognize this basic tort principle:

'14. The Court charges the jury that the seller of a product such as Beloit Corporation in this matter, is not an insurer against all harm which might be caused by a user of his product. A seller is also not liable in damages where the product sold by it is made unsafe by another person after it leaves the seller's control. Therefore, if you are reasonably satisfied from the evidence in this case that at the time physical control of the papermaking machine referred to in the Plaintiff's Complaint was relinquished to Southern Marathon Corporation it was in a reasonably safe condition, and if you are further reasonably satisfied from the evidence in this cause that modifications were made to the machine by persons other than the Defendant, Beloit Corporation, after the machine was turned over to Southern Marathon Corporation or the Plaintiff's employer, and if you are further reasonably satisfied from the evidence in this cause that the modifications made by persons other than the Defendant, Beloit Corporation, was the sole proximate cause of the Plaintiff's injuries and damages and that the Defendant, Beloit Corporation, was not guilty of any other negligence, then the Court charges the jury that you cannot return a verdict in favor of the Plaintiff and against the Defendant, Beloit Corporation.

'14a. The Court charges the jury that the seller of a product such as Beloit Corporation in this matter, is not an insurer against all harm which might be caused by a user of his product. A seller is also not liable in damages where the product sold by it is made unsafe by another person after it leaves the seller's control.' 2

There is ample evidence that Beloit was aware that the air chute did not work from the outset when the machine was installed and thus Beloit could foresee the probability that this chute would be removed. Beloit's expert, Mr. Cleiler, testified that the chute as installed would probably not function as an automatic feeder on heavy grades of paper. Secondly, there seems little dispute that these doctor blades were not guards. Mr. Cleiler stated, 'I do not consider these doctor blades guards.' This testimony, together with the exhibits admitted into evidence, constitutes sufficient evidence from which the jury could properly infer that the presence of the blades would not have prevented the accident.

Furthermore, Harrell's expert witness, Professor Landry (a design engineer who was currently serving as the National President of the American Society of Safety Engineering), testified:

'My opinion is that that calendar stack as it was designed and manufactured by Beloit and subsequently shipped to and assembled at the Marathon Paper which was subsequently changed to American Can, does or did, in my opinion, within the known state of the art at that particular time, present a hazardous situation from...

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