Ellis v. Weasler Engineering

Decision Date11 July 2001
Docket NumberNo. 99-30965,99-30965
Citation258 F.3d 326
Parties(5th Cir. 2001) ELTON FITZGERALD ELLIS, Plaintiff - Appellee v. WEASLER ENGINEERING INC; ET AL, Defendants NUT HUSTLER INC, Defendant - Appellant
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana

Before SMITH and DENNIS, Circuit Judges, and HARMON,* District Judge.

DENNIS, Circuit Judge:

In this diversity jurisdiction civil action based on Louisiana products liability law, the manufacturer, Nut Hustler, Inc., challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support the jury's verdict in favor of the plaintiff, Elton Fitzgerald Ellis, on the single issue of whether Mr. Ellis's injury, the traumatic amputation of his arm, arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product, a mechanized pecan harvester. Alternatively, Nut Hustler seeks reversal of the district court's denial of its motion for a new trial because of an alleged inconsistency between special verdicts. At the outset, we stress the limited nature of the principal issue on appeal: we are not here presented with a challenge to the jury's determination that Mr. Ellis's injury was proximately caused either by a characteristic of the product that rendered it unreasonably dangerous in design or by an inadequate or unprovided warning about the product's danger. Rather, we are to consider only whether the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to create an issue of fact for the jury as to the reasonably anticipated use element of Mr. Ellis's claim or whether the district court was required to enter a judgment as a matter of law against him on that issue. On the issues appealed we affirm the judgment on verdict of the district court.

I. Facts and Procedural History

In the pecan-harvesting season of 1996-1997, the plaintiff, Elton Ellis, worked for Clarence Spotsville harvesting pecans on Mr. Spotsville's farm in Colfax, Louisiana. Mr. Ellis's job entailed operating Mr. Spotsville's tractor and mechanized pecan picker. Mr. Spotsville had purchased the pecan harvester machine from its manufacturer, the defendant Nut Hustler, Inc.

On the day of the accident, February 6, 1997, Mr. Spotsville picked up Mr. Ellis in his truck and bought each of them a can of beer on their way to the pecan orchard. After drinking "two sips" or a can of beer,1 Mr. Ellis started the tractor and set out to collect fallen pecans with the Nut Hustler machine attached to the tractor. The harvester's pecan-picking function was powered by a spinning drive shaft attached to a power take-off on the tractor. As he was circling the first pecan tree, Mr. Ellis noticed that the harvester was not ejecting leaves, twigs, and debris as it should when properly harvesting pecans. Mr. Ellis testified:

It wasn't blowing out the leaves. It was stopped up, so I did my normal routine, what I always do, that's the way I was taught, was to stop the tractor, leave the P.T.O. running and get off the tractor, walk back there and see what was not spinning back there on the spinner, see what was stopped up, what was causing it.

Thus, to identify the part of the harvester that was not working properly, Mr. Ellis left the tractor motor idling in neutral gear and the drive shaft spinning, so that he could see where the mechanism was broken, stuck, or not properly functioning.

Mr. Ellis testified that both Mr. Spotsville and Mr. Valle, another pecan farmer for whom he had worked, taught him to follow this procedure to determine the nature of the problem when the harvester was not performing effectively. The plaintiff's expert witness, Mr. Mansel Mayeux, a retired Louisiana State University professor of agricultural engineering who had extensive experience in research, design, and safety of agricultural machinery, testified that Mr. Ellis had not engaged in an unexpected or improper use of the pecan harvester: "When you inspect a machine like that when you have a problem, you may have to leave it running in order to tell what the problem is. You turn it off and nothing is happening, so you don't know what's wrong, so you've got to leave it on."2 The defendant's expert witness, Dr. Gerald Whitehouse, who had three degrees in mechanical engineering and specific expertise in mechanical design, testified that pecan harvesting was the reasonably anticipated use of the pecan harvester and that this was his understanding of what Mr. Ellis was doing at the time of the accident. Nut Hustler did not present any evidence that it reasonably should not have expected ordinary persons to troubleshoot a malfunctioning harvester in the field by visually inspecting its moving parts while it was being operated by a power take-off from a stationary tractor.

Mr. Ellis walked around the pecan harvester and inspected its working parts, but he was not able to identify the cause of the malfunction. Because of the cold weather, Mr. Ellis was wearing a long flannel jacket over his trousers and undergarments. This was not unusual garb for pecan harvesting, as he testified without contradiction that Mr. Spotsville and Mr. Valle wore similar jackets in the field. As he headed back to the tractor, he noticed that a bolt on the front of the harvester was loose and dangling. (This was a different bolt from the one on the drive shaft involved in the accident.) He walked over and looked at the dangling bolt for a moment. Then he turned and walked toward the tractor again. Suddenly, the spinning drive shaft caught some part of his clothing and pulled him back into the machinery. Mr. Ellis testified:

So I walked back there and I looked and I couldn't seem to find what the problem was, so I said, well, I'll go cut the machine off and come back and look again. So as I headed back to the tractor, I noticed that another bolt was loose. I heard it dangling. So I walked over and I looked over at it, and as I glanced and I turned around and I headed back to the tractor, that's when--I don't know. I don't know what happened to me. I just felt something grab me from the back, and as it grabbed me from the back, it made me lose my balance, you know, and it pulled me into it.

After the clothing covering Mr. Ellis's arm became tightly wrapped around the spinning drive shaft, his body was thrown away from the shaft, tearing off his arm at the shoulder.

Mr. Ellis filed this products liability suit against three defendants, including Nut Hustler. The district court dismissed the claims against all defendants except Nut Hustler. A jury trial was held on May 17-18, 1999. Nut Hustler moved for judgment as a matter of law at the close of the plaintiff's case and re-urged the motion upon completion of its case. The district court withheld ruling on the motion. The jury returned a verdict finding Nut Hustler 70% at fault and Mr. Spotsville 30% at fault. The jury found that Mr. Ellis was negligent in his use of the harvester but determined that his negligence was not a cause of the accident. The jury quantified damages in the amount of $730,000. Nut Hustler again moved for judgment as a matter of law on the issue of whether Mr. Ellis was engaged in a reasonably anticipated use of the harvester at the time of the accident. Nut Hustler also moved for a new trial on the issue of whether Mr. Ellis was guilty of negligence that was a cause of the accident. The district court denied the motions and rendered judgment for Mr. Ellis on the verdict. Nut Hustler appealed.

The district court's ruling on the post-trial motions succinctly describes the evidence from which it concluded that the jury reasonably found in favor of Mr. Ellis on the issues of reasonably anticipated use, unreasonably dangerousness in design and lack of adequate warning, and proximate causation of injury. The pertinent part of the district court's ruling provides:

In this case, there was sufficient evidence that Ellis used the pecan harvester for the exact purpose for which it was intended, gathering pecans. Further, there was testimony that Ellis was inspecting the machine when his shirt became twisted in the rotating machine. Such a use is consistent with the purpose of the product. See [Kampen v. American Isuzu Motors, Inc., 157 F.3d 306, 309 (5th Cir. 1998)(en banc)]. The defendant argues that the placement of a large bolt on the drive shaft was an unreasonable and unanticipated use of the pecan harvester. Consideration of the placement of the bolt is more appropriate when analyzing the issue of alteration and modification of the product.

The unreasonably dangerous question encompasses the reasonably anticipated alteration or modification issue. See 9:2800.54(C)(1997). That is the issue before this court: whether there is legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find that the modifications made to the machine could be reasonably anticipated by the defendant.

. . . From the evidence presented, the jury could have found that the pecan harvester was unreasonably dangerous when it left the Nut Hustler's control. Basil Savage, the majority shareholder in Nut Hustler,3 testified that he had developed a shield for the drive shaft in the early 1980's. He placed this shield on the pecan harvester of his other company, Savage Equipment Company. He discussed the need for the shield with Jimmy Goforth, another shareholder of Nut Hustler and manager of the company, but Goforth would not place the shield on the Nut Hustler equipment. Savage admitted that a guard could have been manufactured and installed at a reasonable cost and would provide protection for an operator. In addition, Savage testified that [the designer] sent Nut Hustler a blueprint of the pecan harvester in 1978 that warned them that the drive shaft had no shield and such a shield should be provided by the implement manufacturer, Nut Hustler.

Mansel Mayeux, plaintiff's expert in agricultural engineering, testified that in March 1987 the American Society of Agricultural...

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