Campbell v. Southern Pacific Co.

Decision Date31 August 1978
Parties, 583 P.2d 121 Ramon A. CAMPBELL, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. SOUTHERN PACIFIC COMPANY et al., Defendants and Appellants. L.A. 30540.
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court

Morris & Polich, Landon Morris, Morgan, Wensel & McNicholas, Los Angeles, and Edward L. Lascher, Ventura, for defendants and appellants.

Richard C. Voorhies, Los Angeles, and Al Schallau, Westchester, for plaintiff and respondent.

Robert E. Cartwright, San Francisco, Edward I. Pollock, Los Angeles, William H. Lally, Sacramento, Stephen I. Zetterberg, Claremont, Robert G. Beloud, Upland, Ned Good, Los Angeles, David B. Baum, Arne Werchick, San Francisco, Elmer Low, Pasadena, Sanford M. Gage, Beverly Hills, and Leonard Sacks, Encino, as amici curiae on behalf of plaintiff and respondent.

MOSK, Justice.

This is an appeal by the defendants Southern Pacific Company (Pacific) and White Motor Corporation (White) from a judgment following a jury verdict in an action for personal injuries suffered by plaintiff Ramon Campbell who was employed as a driver for Pacific Motor Trucking Company (PMT). On the night of May 18, 1969, Campbell was seriously injured during the course of his employment when a tractor he was operating fell off the side of a flatcar being loaded in the Southern Pacific Railyard in Los Angeles. The jury returned a verdict of $487,230 against Southern Pacific and White, jointly, and also awarded plaintiff $36,850 against nonappealing codefendants California Hospital (Hospital) and Jan Carpenter Leonard (Leonard) for subsequent and additional injuries sustained by plaintiff when he fell from a hospital table while X-rays were being taken following the accident. For reasons which will appear, we modify and affirm the judgments against White and Southern Pacific.

Southern Pacific engaged its wholly owned subsidiary PMT to move "piggyback" trailers on and off railroad flatcars at its North Mission Street railyard in Los Angeles, and agreed to reimburse PMT for the purchase, repair, and maintenance of equipment used by PMT in the loading and unloading operation. The tractor in question was one of several which PMT had purchased in 1966 from White for use in Southern Pacific's yard. PMT thereafter experienced considerable difficulty with the power steering units of the tractors.

The procedure routinely used in the loading operations was substantially as follows: each trailer was loaded on a flatcar by means of a tractor, which initially pushed the trailer up a ramp onto the bed of a flatcar, and then over a succession of attached cars until the assigned car was reached. After the trailer and tractor ware disconnected, the tractor then returned over the adjoining cars, and down the ramp to ground level. Spaces between the cars were bridged by metal endplates. Because these endplates were frequently warped and the flatcars were of varying heights, the tractor's passage over the cars was uneven. Once in position, the trailers were secured to the flatcars by metal saddles. The cars were equipped with six-inch guardrails along their sides.

At the time of the accident, plaintiff, having placed a trailer in position, was returning with the tractor across a flatcar at a speed of approximately five miles per hour. As he approached the end of the train, plaintiff felt the steering wheel pull abruptly to the left and the tractor struck the left guardrail. Plaintiff removed his foot from the accelerator and attempted to steer the vehicle to the right, but the steering wheel jammed and the tractor struck the right guardrail. He then pulled to the left, the steering wheel jerked from his hands, and the tractor ran off the left side of the car landing against another flatcar on an adjoining track. Plaintiff was severely injured.

At trial, plaintiff's expert, Dr. Youngdahl, blamed the accident primarily on a design defect in the tractor's power steering unit. Specifically, he testified that the unit's mountings were not sufficiently strong to withstand shock forces generated by the uneven ride. These stresses, he said, could ultimately produce a deflection in the steering gear resulting from torsional forces exerted during a turning movement, thereby causing the unit's actuator to bind in the direction of the turn. Furthermore, he expressed the view that improper positioning and placement of the steering unit within the vehicle had subjected the unit's hoses to undue rubbing and abrasion, which, in turn, could lead to loss and contamination of the fluid in the steering system. Dr. Youngdahl concluded that the history of power steering repairs and fluid loss on the White tractors had constituted ample notice that there was a malfunction in the steering system.


Plaintiff sued White on a theory of strict liability in tort for the manufacture of a defective product. On appeal, White makes two principal assertions: (1) the jury's answers to certain special interrogatories which were favorable to White cannot be reconciled with the adverse judgment, and (2) the trial court erroneously refused White's proposed instruction on plaintiff's assumption of risk. We conclude that neither contention merits reversal.

In response to special interrogatories which were submitted by the trial court, the jury found that PMT had used and maintained the tractor in an unreasonable manner, and that this unreasonable use and maintenance had "contribute(d) to plaintiff's injury." White contends that these answers compel a judgment in its favor, since they demonstrate the jury's acceptance of White's defense of product misuse. Prior to Daly v. General Motors Corp. (1978) 20 Cal.3d 725, 144 Cal.Rptr. 380, 575 P.2d 1162, it was established, however, that product misuse was a defense to strict products liability only when the defendant proved that an unforeseeable abuse or alteration of the product after it left the manufacturer's hands was the Sole reason that the product caused an injury. (See Hasson v. Ford Motor Co. (1977) 19 Cal.3d 530, 550-551, 138 Cal.Rptr. 705, 564 P.2d 857; Cronin v. J. B. E. Olson Corp. (1972) 8 Cal.3d 121, 126, 104 Cal.Rptr. 433, 501 P.2d 1153; Self v. General Motors Corp. (1974) 42 Cal.App.3d 1, 7, 116 Cal.Rptr. 575.) Here, there was evidence from which the jury could well have concluded that, assuming arguendo that there was product misuse, a manufacturing or design defect in the tractor Also contributed to the accident. Nothing in the answers to the special interrogatories indicates that the jury rejected that view. There is, therefore, no fatal inconsistency between the special findings and the general verdict. (Code Civ.Proc., § 625.)

White's assumption of risk defense is based upon the following evidence: plaintiff and a fellow employee both testified that plaintiff was told when he reported for work on the evening of the accident that the tractor assigned to him had exhibited steering difficulties. Plaintiff observed the tractor contained no red tag, which customarily would have indicated its unsafe condition, but he was advised before first using it that the tractor had been red tagged. Plaintiff further testified that he told his supervisor that he understood the tractor was unsafe and was reluctant to use it. The supervisor reassured him that the vehicle had not been red tagged, and provocatively asked plaintiff, ". . . are you refusing to work?" Plaintiff then operated the tractor and noticed some "sloppiness" in the steering system. The accident occurred about 20 minutes after plaintiff began to load the flatcars.

Under the circumstances of this case, we conclude that any error in refusing an instruction on the assumption of risk issue was not prejudicial to White. This result follows from the procedural posture of the case, which we now examine. Relying in part on the same evidence on which White sought to establish plaintiff's assumption of risk, Southern Pacific raised the defense of plaintiff's contributory negligence and obtained appropriate instructions on that issue. By its verdict against Southern Pacific (rendered before our decision in Li v. Yellow Cab Co. (1975) 13 Cal.3d 804, 119 Cal.Rptr. 858, 532 P.2d 1226), the jury necessarily found that no negligent or unreasonable conduct of plaintiff had contributed to his injuries. Under the law applicable at the time of trial herein, the only form of assumption of risk which could be asserted in a strict liability action was the plaintiff's "voluntarily and unreasonably proceeding to encounter a known danger, . . ." (Luque v. McLean (1972) 8 Cal.3d 136, 145, 104 Cal.Rptr. 443, 450, 501 P.2d 1163, 1170, quoting Barth v. B. F. Goodrich Tire Co. (1968) 265 Cal.App.2d 228, 243, 71 Cal.Rptr. 306.)

As we expressed in Li, an "unreasonable" assumption of risk is but a variant of contributory negligence. (Li, supra, 13 Cal.3d, at p. 824, 119 Cal.Rptr. 858, 532 P.2d 1226.) These principles have particular application to the case before us. The same jury could not, on the same facts, have found that plaintiff's conduct was reasonable, not constituting contributory negligence as to Southern Pacific, but was unreasonable, thus amounting to assumption of risk as to White. The assumption of risk issue was therefore necessarily resolved adversely to White when the jury rejected Southern Pacific's contributory negligence contention. Under these circumstances, we conclude that it is not reasonably probable that White's proposed instruction on assumption of risk would have produced a result more favorable to White. (Grey v. Fibreboard Paper Products Co. (1966) 65 Cal.2d 240, 246, 53 Cal.Rptr. 545, 418 P.2d 153; People v. Watson (1956) 46 Cal.2d 818, 836, 299 P.2d 243.)

We realize, of course, that multiple defendants are involved and that each defendant is entitled to instructions on, and separate consideration of, every defense available and applicable to it. (Phillips v. G. L. Truman...

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