Cronin v. J. Olson Corp.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Citation8 Cal.3d 121,501 P.2d 1153,104 Cal.Rptr. 433
Decision Date17 October 1972
Parties, 501 P.2d 1153 William CRONIN, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. J. B. E. OLSON CORPORATION, Defendant and Appellant, State Compensation Insurance Fund, Intervener and Respondent. Sac. 7913. In Bank

Mayall, Hurley, Knutsen, Smith & Green, and C. D. Knutsen, Stockton, for defendant and appellant.

Hulsey, Beus & Wilson, and Roger D. Hulsey, Stockton, for plaintiff and respondent.

Robert E. Cartwright, San Francisco, Edward I. Pollock, Theodore A. Horn, Los Angeles, Marvin E. Lewis, San Francisco, William H. Lally, Sacramento, Thomas T. Anderson, Indio, Joseph W. Cotchett, San Mateo, and Leonard Sacks, Pico Rivera, as amici curiae for plaintiff and respondent.

T. Groezinger, Loton Wells, and Herbert Lasky, Los Angeles, for intervener and respondent.

SULLIVAN, Justice.

In this products liability case, the principal question which we face is whether the injured plaintiff seeking recovery upon the theory of strict liability in tort must establish, among other facts, not only that the product contained a defect which proximately caused his injuries but also that such defective condition made the product unreasonable dangerous to the user or consumer. We have concluded that he need not do so. Accordingly, we find no error in the trial court's refusal to so instruct the jury. Rejecting as without merit various challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, we affirm the judgment.

On October 3, 1966, plaintiff, a route salesman for Gravem-Inglis Bakery Co. (Gravem) of Stockton, was driving a bread delivery truck along a rural road in San Joaquin County. While plaintiff was attempting to pass a pick-up truck ahead of him, its driver made a sudden left turn, causing the pick-up to collide with the plaintiff's truck and forcing the latter off the road and into a ditch. As a result, plaintiff was propelled through the windshield and landed on the ground. The impact broke an aluminum safety hasp which was located just behind the driver's seat and designed to hold the bread trays in place. The loaded trays, driven forward by the abrupt stop and impact of the truck, struck plaintiff in the back and hurled him through the windshield. He sustained serious personal injuries.

The truck, a one-ton Chevrolet stepvan with built-in bread racks, was one of several trucks sold to Gravem in 1957 by defendant Chase Chevrolet Company (Chase), not a party to this appeal. Upon receipt of Gravem's order, Chase purchased the trucks from defendant J. B. E. Olson Corporation (Olson), which acted as sales agent for the assembled vehicle, the chassis, body, and racks of which were manufactured by three subcontractors. The body of the van contained three aisles along which there were welded runners extending from the front to the rear of the truck. Each rack held ten bread trays from top to bottom and five trays deep; the trays slid forward into the cab or back through the rear door to facilitate deliveries.

Plaintiff brought the present action against Chase, Olson and General Motors Corporation 1 alleging that the truck was unsafe for its intended use because of defects in its manufacture, in that the metal hasp was exceedingly porous, contained holes, pits and voids, and lacked sufficient tensile strength to withstand the impact. Defendants' answers denied the material allegations of the complaint and asserted the affirmative defense of contributory negligence. 2 Subsequently, upon leave of court, the additional defense of assumption of the risk was asserted.

At the trial, plaintiff's expert testified, in substance, that the metal hasp broke, releasing the bread trays, because it was extremely porous and had a significantly lower tolerance to force than a non-flawed aluminum hasp would have had. The jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff and against Olson in the sum of $45,000 but in favor of defendant Chase and against plaintiff. 3 Judgment was entered accordingly. This appeal by Olson followed.

Defendant 4 attacks the sufficiency of the evidence to support the verdict and the trial court's instruction on strict liability. The challenge to the evidence is multipronged, claiming in effect that plaintiff produced no evidence on several essential issues. We first turn to this challenge, considering defendant's arguments in the order presented.

1. Sufficiency of the Evidence

Defendant first contends that plaintiff failed to show the defective hasp to be the same one originally supplied by the manufacturer. The record contains no evidence as to the use or maintenance or the van from the time it was purchased by Gravem in 1957 until plaintiff began to drive it five years later. Plaintiff admitted that the racks had been modified by the addition of reinforcement bars welded onto a hinge mechanism which the hasp fastened in a closed position to hold the trays in place. But that admission does not derogate from the implied finding that the hasp itself was the original one supplied by the manufacturer. Contrary to defendant's claim that no evidence was introduced on this point, plaintiff's expert witness testified that he saw no indication of any repair of the hasp itself. When there is sufficient evidence to support a factual finding, it is not within the province of an appellate court to reexamine or reweigh it. (Crawford v. Southern Pacific Co. (1953) 3 Cal.2d 427, 429, 45 P.2d 183.)

It is next urged that plaintiff's evidence failed to show any condition of the hasp which could be considered defective. The gist of the argument on this point appears to be that 'defectiveness' cannot be properly determined without proof of some standard set by knowledgeable individuals for the manufacture and use of the particular part under scrutiny and that plaintiff's expert applied 'his own unilateral standard' in giving his opinion that the hasp was defective. In the absence of an appropriate standard, so it is argued, all proof must fail.

The argument lacks merit. Gravem purchased the van and its bread racks from Chase as a unit. Since there were no standard bread racks available, Chase in turn ordered them from Olson according to the latter's blueprint, and left to Olson the manufacture of a safe set of bread racks. Olson admitted through the testimony of its vice president that the purpose of the locking device on the bread rack (of which the hasp was a part) was to hold the trays in place and that it knew that the van was to be driven on public highways. In short, the evidence shows that the intended purpose of the locking device was to keep the bread trays from moving forward into the driver's compartment as a result of any foreseeable movements of the van in highway travel.

The record shows that the hasp, because it was defective, did not fulfill this purpose. Plaintiff's expert testified that the broken hasp was 'extremely porous and extremely defective' as it was full of holes, voids and cracks. These flaws were in the metal itself and resulted in the hasp's lowered tolerance to force. He further stated that this condition could not be attributed to prolonged use. This conclusion was buttressed by the expert's testimony that the break in the hasp was a tensile fracture caused by sudden force rather than a fatigue fracture, which is by nature progressive. The hasp failed because '(i)t was just a very, very bad piece of metal. Simply would be stand any force--reasonable forces at all.'

Olson's argument that the van was built only for 'normal' driving is unavailing. We agree that strict liability should not be imposed upon a manufacturer when injury results from a use of its product that is not reasonably foreseeable. Although a collision may not be the 'normal' or intended use of a motor vehicle, vehicle manufacturers must take accidents into consideration as reasonably foreseeable occurrences involving their products. (Passwaters v. General Motors Corporation (8th Cir. 1972) 454 F.2d 1270, 1276; Larsen v. General Motors Corporation (8th Cir. 1968) 391 F.2d 495, 501--503; 80 Harv.L.Rev. 688, 689 (1967); contra, Evans v. General Motors Corporation (7th Cir. 1966) 359 F.2d 822, 825, cert. den., 385 U.S. 836, 87 S.Ct. 83, 17 L.Ed.2d 70.) The design and manufacture of products should not be carried out in an industrial vacuum but with recognition of the realities of their everyday use.

Despite its claim that Gravem used the van beyond its life span, Olson did not show that the van was delivered with any warning that it would not remain safe after seven or eight years. Nor did it show that by reason of age the van was obviously dangerous.

Defendant claims that the hasp was not intended to be used without inspection and repair. However, the expert testimony offered by plaintiff established that the hasp failed because of internal holes, cracks and voids not visible to the naked eye. In any event, the mere failure to discover defects in the product is not a defense in a strict liability case. (Barth v. B. F. Goodrich Tire Co. (1968) 265 Cal.App.2d 228, 243, 71 Cal.Rptr. 306.)

Finally, defendant contends that plaintiff failed to prove proximate causation between the defect in the hasp and the accident. It is urged that hasp did not cause the collision. Plaintiff, however, does not argue that the hasp caused the accident, but only that its defectiveness was a substantial factor contributing to his injuries. Defendant argues that the fracture of the hasp did not propel plaintiff through the windshield. But plaintiff's expert witness testified that if the hasp had not been porous, it would have withstood the impact and kept the trays in place. The hasp's fragility therefore had a direct, rather than a remote, connection with plaintiff's injuries. There is ample evidence in the record supportive of the jury's implied finding of proximate causation.

2. The Instruction on Strict Liability

Defendant's remaining contention requires us to probe the...

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