Charlton v. Toyota Indus. Equipment

CourtSuperior Court of Pennsylvania
Citation714 A.2d 1043
PartiesProd.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 15,286 Michael CHARLTON, Appellant, v. TOYOTA INDUSTRIAL EQUIPMENT, Ransome Lift and Ransome Lift Equipment Co., Appellees.
Decision Date14 July 1998

Ralph D. Samuel, Philadelphia, for appellant.

Marc B. Zingarini, Philadelphia, for Ransome Lift, appellee.


JOYCE, Judge:

This is an appeal from the order of the trial court denying Appellant's post-trial motions, as made final by the entry of judgment in favor of Appellant in this products liability action. 1 For the reasons set forth below, we reverse and remand for further proceedings. Before addressing the merits of Appellant's claims, we will briefly recount the pertinent facts giving rise to this appeal.

Appellant, Michael Charlton, and his father, Edward Charlton were both employees of Crown Cork & Seal Co., Inc. (CCS). On February 11, 1991, Michael approached his father, who was operating a forklift truck, and asked him to take a break. Edward declined and indicated that he intended to continue working. Appellant, not hearing his father's response, began walking away. While Appellant's attention was focused on activities occurring in another department, Edward put the forklift truck into reverse and ran over his son's left foot. Appellant has become permanently disabled due to the excruciating pain and other symptoms that he continues to experience as a result of the accident.

In February, 1993, Appellant instituted suit against Toyota Industrial Equipment (TIE), 2 Colonial Lift Truck Inc. 3 and Appellee, Ransome Lift (RL)/Ransome Lift Equipment Co. (RLECO). 4 Recovery was sought solely on the basis of strict products liability, i.e., Appellant alleged that the forklift was defective because it contained a gas tank that obstructed the driver's rearward view and lacked rearview mirrors and/or an alarm system that was activated when the forklift was operated in reverse. A jury trial was held in 1996, following which the jury found in favor of Appellant and awarded him $100,000.00 in damages. Both parties filed post-trial motions. The trial court denied all post-trial motions and directed the entry of judgment in favor of Appellant. 5 Appellant timely appealed and presents the following issues for review: (1) whether the trial court erred or abused its discretion by permitting Appellee to introduce evidence of Appellant's and his father's negligence; (2) whether the trial court erred in granting Appellee's motion to mold the verdict with respect to its cross-claim for indemnification against TIE; and (3) whether Appellant is entitled to a new trial based on the inadequacy of the verdict. Because we find Appellant's third claim to be dispositive, we will begin our review with an analysis of this question.

Appellant challenges the adequacy of the jury verdict. With regard to this issue, our Supreme Court has observed that:

A jury verdict is set aside as inadequate when it appears to have been the product of passion, prejudice, partiality or corruption, or where it clearly appears from uncontradicted evidence that the amount of the verdict bears no reasonable relation to the loss suffered by the plaintiff. Where the jury's verdict is so contrary to the evidence as to shock one's sense of justice, a new trial should be awarded. It is the province of the jury to assess the worth of the testimony and to accept or reject the estimates given by the witnesses. If the verdict bears a reasonable resemblance to the proven damages, it is not the function of the court to substitute its [judgment] for [that of] the [jury]. However, where the injustice of the verdict stands forth like a beacon, a court should not hesitate to find it inadequate and order a new trial.

Kiser v. Schulte, 538 Pa. 219, 225-226, 648 A.2d 1, 3-4 (1994) (citations and quotation marks omitted). Accord Mendralla v. Weaver Corp., 703 A.2d 480, 487 (Pa.Super.1997) (en banc ). The synthesis of these conflicting rules is that a jury is entitled to reject any and all evidence up until the point at which the verdict is so disproportionate to the uncontested evidence as to defy common sense and logic. Neison v. Hines, 539 Pa. 516, 521, 653 A.2d 634, 637 (1995).

In this case, the jury awarded Appellant a total of $100,000.00. However, the uncontested evidence at trial demonstrated that Appellant had lost earnings in the sum of $145,596.00 dollars and anticipated future lost earnings of between $813,015.00 and $877,335.00. N.T. 10/23/96 at 181 and 186. It was also undisputed that as a result of his injury, Appellant suffered and continues to experience excruciating pain which precludes him from securing gainful employment. N.T. 10/22/96 at 160-166, 174-175, 177-178 and 180; N.T. 10/23/96 at 147-148, 150 and 179-180. In addition, Appellant had incurred medical bills in the sum of $98,006.08. N.T. 10/23/96 at 162; N.T. 10.25/96 at 118. Appellant further anticipated continued psychotherapy treatment at a cost of $5,200.00 per year. N.T. 10.23/96 at 66. Appellee's counsel admitted in closing argument that none of Appellant's damage evidence was refuted. N.T. 10/25/96 at 145-146.

While the jury was free to accept or reject the above evidence, the award in this case bears no reasonable relation to the loss suffered by Appellant. The jury's award barely covers Appellant's medical expenses and did not compensate him for his other pecuniary losses or pain and suffering. Under these circumstances, we agree with Appellant that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a new trial.

The issue of causation was vigorously disputed by the parties. Moreover, at least one member of the jury disagreed with the verdict, which was rendered after the jury had deliberated for more than a day. N.T. 10/29/96 at 3. These factors, coupled with the jury's questions, suggest that the liability and damages issues were closely intertwined. It is therefore necessary to remand for a retrial on all issues. See Kiser v. Schulte, 538 Pa. at 233, 648 A.2d at 8 (a new trial will be limited to the issue of damages where: (1) the issue of damages is not intertwined with liability; and (2) where the issue of liability has been fairly determined or is free from doubt).

Having determined that a new trial is necessary as to liability and damages, we need not address Appellant's remaining claims. To provide guidance to the trial court and parties on remand, however, we will review Appellant's first issue in which he challenges the trial court's rulings relating to causation of the accident. "Questions [concerning] the admission and exclusion of evidence are within the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be reversed on appeal absent an abuse of discretion. The basic requisite for the admissibility of any evidence in a case is that it be competent and relevant." Moran v. G. & W.H. Corson, Inc., 402 Pa.Super. 101, 125, 586 A.2d 416, 428 (1991) (en banc ), allocatur denied, 529 Pa. 650, 602 A.2d 860 (1992) (citations and quotation marks omitted). We will consider Appellant's claim and the trial court's decision in accordance with these principles.

The instant case is a strict liability action. The concept of strict liability allows a plaintiff to recover where a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the consumer or user causes harm to the plaintiff. Spino v. John S. Tilley Ladder Co., 548 Pa. 286, 293, 696 A.2d 1169, 1172 (1997). In a design defect case, the question is whether the product should have been designed more safely. Id. Pennsylvania law requires that a plaintiff prove two elements in a products liability action: (1) that the product was defective; and (2) that the defect was a substantial factor in causing the injury. Id.

Mindful of these concepts, the appellate courts have struggled with the issue of whether to admit or exclude evidence which bears on the element of causation. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has declined to extend negligence concepts into the area of strict products liability and has held that comparative negligence may not be asserted as a defense in a strict products liability action. Kimco Development Corp. v. Michael D's Carpet Outlets, 536 Pa. 1, 7, 9, 637 A.2d 603, 606, 607 (1993). The Supreme Court nonetheless has observed that evidence which is inadmissible for one purpose may be admissible for another. Spino, 548 Pa. at 292, 696 A.2d at 1172. The Court has thus allowed evidence regarding the lack of prior claims to be admitted in a design defect product liability action if it is relevant to a contested issue of causation. Id., 548 Pa. at 296, 696 A.2d at 1173.

In construing and applying the above decisions, this Court has acknowledged that a plaintiff's comparative negligence is irrelevant in a strict products liability action and may not be used to reduce a strictly liable defendant's responsibility for the entire damage award. Childers, 452 Pa.Super. at 104-106, 681 A.2d at 207. See also Madonna v. Harley Davidson, Inc., 708 A.2d 507, 508 (Pa.Super.1998) and Foley v. Clark Equipment Co., 361 Pa.Super. 599, 626-628, 523 A.2d 379, 393, allocatur denied, 516 Pa. 614, 531 A.2d 780 and 516 Pa. 641, 533 A.2d 712 (1987) (both of which note that negligence principles are generally inadmissible in a strict products liability action). However, this Court has noted certain limited exceptions to this rule. Childers, supra. Specifically, this Court has permitted a defendant to introduce evidence that a plaintiff voluntarily assumed the risk or misused a product. Childers, supra ; Robinson v. B.F. Goodrich Tire Co., 444 Pa.Super. 640, 643-645, 664 A.2d 616, 618 (1995), allocatur denied, 543 Pa. 694, 670 A.2d 142 (1996). This Court has further permitted evidence of reckless conduct to be admitted where such conduct was the sole cause of the accident. Madonna, 708 A.2d at 509.

Evidence that a plaintiff engaged in highly reckless...

To continue reading

Request your trial
23 cases
  • Barnes v. American Tobacco Co., 97-1844
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 12 Noviembre 1998
    ...risk, misuse of a product, or highly reckless conduct ... insofar as it relates to the element of causation." Charlton v. Toyota Indus. Equip., 714 A.2d 1043, 1047 (Pa.Super.1998). To demonstrate that a plaintiff's actions are highly reckless, defendants must show plaintiff "knew or had rea......
  • Gaudio v. Ford Motor Co.
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • 1 Junio 2009 relates to the issue of causation. Clark v. Bil-Jax, Inc., 763 A.2d 920, 923 (Pa.Super.2000) (quoting Charlton v. Toyota Industrial Equipment, 714 A.2d 1043, 1047 (Pa.Super.1998)). To establish voluntary assumption of the risk, the defendant must show that the buyer knew of a defect and ......
  • Reott v. Asia Trend, Inc.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • 26 Noviembre 2012
    ...himself and that he deliberately act[s], or fail[s] to act, in conscious disregard of that risk.” Id. (citing Charlton v. Toyota Indus. Equip., 714 A.2d 1043, 1047 (Pa.Super.1998)). The panel then conducted a survey of Pennsylvania products liability law and determined that assumption of th......
  • Moyer v. United Dominion Industries, Inc.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • 9 Enero 2007
    ...liability action] insofar as it relates to the element of causation.") (internal quotations marks omitted); Charlton v. Toyota Indus. Equip., 714 A.2d 1043, 1047 (Pa.Super.Ct.1998) (same). Some Pennsylvania cases suggest, however, that such evidence is admissible only if the misuse was the ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT