Hutchinson v. Penske Truck Leasing Co.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation876 A.2d 978
PartiesH. Ryan HUTCHINSON, Appellant v. PENSKE TRUCK LEASING COMPANY and Penske Corporation, Keystone Foods North America, Freightliner, LLC and McDonald's Corporation, Appellees. H. Ryan Hutchinson, Appellee v. Penske Truck Leasing Company and Penske Corporation, and Freightliner, LLC, Appellants.
Decision Date17 May 2005

876 A.2d 978

H. Ryan HUTCHINSON, Appellant
PENSKE TRUCK LEASING COMPANY and Penske Corporation, Keystone Foods North America, Freightliner, LLC and McDonald's Corporation, Appellees.
H. Ryan Hutchinson, Appellee
Penske Truck Leasing Company and Penske Corporation, and Freightliner, LLC, Appellants

Superior Court of Pennsylvania.

Argued February 1, 2005.

Filed May 17, 2005.

Reargument Denied July 21, 2005.

876 A.2d 981
John S. Bagby, Jr., Philadelphia, for Hutchinson

Wilbur B. Ruthrauff, Philadelphia, for Freightliner.


876 A.2d 979

¶ 1 In this products liability action, the issue we decide is whether expert reports, summarizing studies of hundreds of other accidents, are admissible as evidence of a defendant's state of mind. We hold that, since the reports did not satisfy the "substantial similarity" test applicable to other accident evidence, they are not admissible. Because admission of the reports was reversible error, we remand for a new trial.

¶ 2 On March 1, 1999, Ryan Hutchinson was driving an eighteen-wheel tractor trailer when the trailer left the roadway, hit a guardrail and rolled down an embankment, pulling the cab with it. The accident occurred on a curved and narrowing ramp connecting New Jersey route 130 and interstate route 295, which was posted with signs advising a speed of thirty-five miles per hour and warning of a reduction to one lane. Prior to entering the ramp, Hutchinson had engaged the cruise control mechanism of the truck, setting it to sixty-two miles per hour in a fifty-five miles per hour zone. After the accident, Hutchinson was trapped in the cab, the roof of which had been crushed, for approximately two hours. When rescue workers extricated him from the cab, he was flown to a trauma center, where his left arm, which had protruded from the cab, was amputated.

¶ 3 Hutchinson claimed that the accident was caused by a failure of the truck's cruise control mechanism to disengage for

876 A.2d 982
several seconds after he applied the brakes, causing the truck to continue at too great a rate of speed on the interstate entry ramp. He filed suit against Freightliner, L.L.C., the manufacturer and seller of the truck; Penske Truck Leasing Company (Penske), which purchased the truck; Keystone Foods, Hutchinson's employer, which had leased the truck from Penske; and McDonald's Corporation, which had hired Keystone Foods to deliver supplies. The action was commenced by a writ of summons on February 28, 2001. The complaint, filed on July 16, 2001, contained numerous averments

¶ 4 Hutchinson's complaint against Keystone Foods and McDonald's Corporation was dismissed with prejudice on June 21, 2002. Trial of the remaining two defendants began on December 1, 2003 and lasted for eighteen days. At the end of the trial, strict liability was the only claim extant.

¶ 5 Hutchinson put forth two theories under his strict liability claim. First, he alleged that the cruise control system was defectively designed in two ways: it remained stuck in the on position after application of the brakes, preventing effective braking, and there was no failsafe mechanism in place to ensure effective disengagement if the primary mechanism should fail. Second, he alleged that the structural design of the cab was defective in that it lacked sufficient crashworthiness to allow the driver to escape serious injury after a roll-over accident.

¶ 6 The jury returned its verdict on December 24, 2003, awarding Hutchinson $5,500,000 against Freightliner and Penske in compensatory damages and $10,000,000 against Freightliner in punitive damages. Defendants Penske and Freightliner filed post-trial motions, seeking JNOV or, in the alternative, new trial or remittitur. The trial court denied the motions for JNOV or new trial, but vacated the punitive damage award to Freightliner, finding that it was not supported by evidence of record. Plaintiff Hutchinson also filed a post-trial motion, seeking delay damages pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 238. The trial court granted this motion, thus increasing Hutchinson's compensatory damage award to a total of $5,974,237.

¶ 7 The parties filed cross-appeals. Hutchinson seeks review of the trial court's order that vacated the punitive damage award, contending that the trial court improperly substituted its judgment for that of the jury. Freightliner and Penske seek review of the order denying their motion for JNOV with respect to liability or, in the alternative, for a new trial, based primarily on allegations of improper admissions of evidence. In addition, they seek review of the trial court order that awarded delay damages.

¶ 8 In Webb v. Zern, 422 Pa. 424, 427, 220 A.2d 853, 854 (1966), our Supreme Court adopted the strict products liability doctrine of the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A. For a plaintiff to recover under a strict liability theory, he must prove only that the product at issue was sold in a defective condition, rendering it unreasonably dangerous, and that the defect was the proximate cause of his injuries. A product is defective when it is not safe for its intended use, because of a defect in its design or manufacture. Lewis v. Coffing Hoist Div., Duff-Norton Co., Inc., 515 Pa. 334, 340, 528 A.2d 590, 592 (1987); Azzarello v. Black Bros. Co., Inc., 480 Pa. 547, 559, 391 A.2d 1020, 1027 (1978). In any product liability case grounded in strict liability, the product, and not the manufacturer's conduct, is on trial. Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa.

876 A.2d 983
644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1006-07 (2003);1 Lewis, supra at 341, 528 A.2d at 593; Spino v. John S. Tilley Ladder Co., 448 Pa.Super. 327, 671 A.2d 726, 734-35 (1996), aff'd, 548 Pa. 286, 696 A.2d 1169 (1997).

¶ 9 The crashworthiness doctrine is a subset of strict products liability, most applicable to vehicular accidents. By this doctrine, the liability of manufacturers and sellers is extended to situations where the defect did not actually cause the injury-producing accident, but rather led to an increase in the severity of the injury incurred. Colville v. Crown Equip. Corp., 809 A.2d 916, 922 (Pa.Super.2002), appeal denied, 574 Pa. 742, 829 A.2d 310 (2003).

¶ 10 The plaintiff in a strict product liability case may rely on evidence of other, similar accidents involving the product to prove defectiveness. See, e.g. Spino, supra at 735 (citing several appellate opinions that have reviewed the admissibility of evidence of other similar accidents in product liability cases). For "other accident" evidence to be admissible, the plaintiff must first establish that there is a "substantial similarity of conditions" between the other accidents and the accident that injured the plaintiff. Id. Courts have engaged in several inquiries in determining whether the other accidents were sufficiently similar to the accident at issue: Was the same instrumentality involved? Did the accidents occur under the same or similar conditions or circumstances? Did the accidents occur at substantially the same place? See Valentine v. Acme Markets, Inc., 455 Pa.Super. 256, 687 A.2d 1157, 1163 (1997); Spino, supra at 735; DiFrancesco v. Excam, Inc., 434 Pa.Super. 173, 642 A.2d 529, 535 (1994); Majdic v. Cincinnati Machine Co., 370 Pa.Super. 611, 537 A.2d 334, 340-41 (1988) (en banc), appeal denied, 520 Pa. 594, 552 A.2d 249 (1988). We stress that the proponent of the evidence bears the burden to establish the similarity between the other accidents and the accident at issue before the evidence is admitted. Valentine, supra at 1163; Spino, supra at 735.

¶ 11 In product liability cases grounded in a theory of strict liability, it appears that a plaintiff may seek punitive as well as compensatory damages, although our Supreme Court has not definitively so held.2 Punitive damages are awarded only in rare instances, to punish and deter outrageous, extreme, egregious behavior. Martin v. Johns-Manville Corp., 508 Pa. 154, 169, 494 A.2d 1088, 1096-97 (1985), abrogated on other grounds, Kirkbride v. Lisbon Contractors, Inc., 521 Pa. 97, 555 A.2d 800 (1989). Ordinary

876 A.2d 984
negligence, involving inadvertence, mistake or error of judgment will not support an award of punitive damages. Id. at 170, 494 A.2d at 1097. Rather, to justify an award of punitive damages, the fact-finder must determine that the defendant acted with a culpable state of mind, i.e., with evil motive or reckless indifference to the rights of others. SHV Coal, Inc. v. Continental Grain Co., 526 Pa. 489, 493-94, 587 A.2d 702, 704 (1991); Martin, supra at 169, 494 A.2d at 1097; Nigro v. Remington Arms Co., Inc., 432 Pa.Super. 60, 637 A.2d 983, 989 (1993), abrogated on other grounds by Aldridge v. Edmunds, 561 Pa. 323, 333, 750 A.2d 292, 297 (2000). Since a culpable state of mind is required for an award of punitive damages, evidence of the defendant's knowledge or intention is highly relevant.

¶ 12 When we review a trial court ruling on admission of evidence, we must acknowledge that decisions on admissibility are within the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be overturned absent an abuse of discretion or misapplication of law. Spino, supra at 734 (citing Rogers v. Johnson & Johnson Products, Inc., 401 Pa.Super. 430, 585 A.2d 1004, 1007 (1990)). In addition, for a...

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