Leehy v. Supreme Exp. & Transfer Co., 63498

Citation646 S.W.2d 786
Decision Date23 February 1983
Docket NumberNo. 63498,63498
CourtMissouri Supreme Court
PartiesNolan D. LEEHY, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. SUPREME EXPRESS & TRANSFER COMPANY, Defendant-Appellant.

Kenneth F. Teasdale, Justin C. Cordonnier, Thomas B. Weaver, St. Louis, for defendant-appellant.

Charles A. Mogab, Thomas J. Gregory, St. Louis, for plaintiff-respondent.

PER CURIAM.

This case was transferred to this Court under Rule 83.06 after opinion by the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District. The single issue upon which transfer was granted is whether it was proper for plaintiff to comment during closing argument on defendant's failure to call as a witness one of defendant's employees. That issue is addressed in Part IV of this opinion, which borrows liberally from the opinion of Judge Gunn for the court of appeals. The remainder of Judge Gunn's opinion, which sets forth the facts of the case and addresses appellant's remaining contentions, is incorporated into and made a part of this opinion in Parts I, II, and III without use of quotation marks.

I

Plaintiff-respondent brought an action under theory of res ipsa loquitur against defendant-appellant Supreme Express & Transfer Company (Supreme) for personal injuries incurred when the forklift truck he was operating fell as Supreme's trailer rolled away from the loading dock. Supreme appeals the jury verdict in favor of plaintiff for $13,000, raising the following points: (1) that plaintiff was contributorily negligent as a matter of law; (2) that plaintiff's res ipsa loquitur instruction failed to embrace all the elements under the theory of the case; (3) that plaintiff, over objection, made erroneous prejudicial comment on defendant's failure to call a witness equally available to both parties. On this latter contention we find merit and are compelled to reverse and remand for a new trial.

Plaintiff was employed as a forklift operator by the Purex Corporation in St. Louis. Somewhere between midnight and 8:00 a.m. prior to the occurrence resulting in plaintiff's injury, defendant's driver had spotted a trailer at the Purex loading dock. The driver testified that to prevent the trailer's movement, he set the air brakes for the trailer wheels, lowered its landing gear and blocked one of the dual wheels with a 4 X 4 wooden block. He then disengaged the tractor from the trailer. At approximately 9:30 in the morning, as plaintiff was driving his forklift onto the trailer with a load, the trailer slipped away from the loading dock. The forklift with plaintiff aboard dropped to the ground, landing on its wheels. Plaintiff sustained injury to his back as a result of the accident. The post-accident investigation disclosed that there was no wheel chock placed to prevent the trailer from rolling.

II

A Purex work safety rule in effect at the time of the accident provided that forklift operators were to look to determine if trailer wheels were chocked. Plaintiff testified that he did glance at the trailer to see if chocks were in place but that his vision was blocked and he could not see the wheels. He contends that he had been directed to fill a rush order which he considered had prevented him from taking time to step off his forklift and walk to a point where he could see whether chocks were in place. Defendant argues that violation of the work rule rendered plaintiff contributorily negligent as a matter of law; hence, the first point on appeal.

It is true, as defendant asserts, that contributory negligence can be a defense in a case brought under res ipsa loquitur fashion. Wissman v. Wissman, 575 S.W.2d 239, 242 (Mo.App.1978). But the issue of contributory negligence is ordinarily a jury question, becoming a matter of law only where reasonable minds cannot differ as to the plaintiff's negligence. Mitchell v. Buchheit, 559 S.W.2d 528, 530 (Mo. banc 1977); Groppel Co. v. United States Gypsum Co., 616 S.W.2d 49, 62 (Mo.App.1981); Jenkins v. Jordan, 593 S.W.2d 236, 239 (Mo.App.1979). And although everyone is required to make ordinary use of his facilities to observe and avoid danger, whether ordinary care has not been exercised to raise the issue of contributory negligence depends on the particular facts of each case. Wissman v. Wissman, 575 S.W.2d at 240-41; Miller v. Sabinske, 322 S.W.2d 941, 946 (Mo.App.1959). The particular facts of this case lend themselves to a jury issue as to whether plaintiff was contributorily negligent in his actions in attempting to determine whether the trailer's wheels had been blocked--an issue resolved against defendant.

III

Defendant alleges that the plaintiff's verdict director 1 is erroneous for failing to include the required finding that it exerted control over the parking and stabilization of the trailer.

An essential element to the application of res ipsa loquitur is that the defendant has management and control of the instrumentality involved at the time the negligence occurs. St. Joseph Light & Power Co. v. Kaw Valley Tunneling, Inc., 589 S.W.2d 260, 276 (Mo. banc 1979); Wagstaff v. City of Maplewood, 615 S.W.2d 608, 612 (Mo.App.1981); Davis v. Jackson, 604 S.W.2d 610, 612 n. 2 (Mo.App.1980). MAI 31.02(3), after which plaintiff's verdict director was modeled, states:

Your verdict must be for plaintiff if you believe:

First, defendant (here describe defendant's control, right to control, or management of the instrumentality involved ) ....

Inserted within the parenthetical phrase relating to control was the following: "Defendant's driver parked an empty trailer No. 93, at a loading dock ...." It was undisputed at trial that defendant's driver had the duty to park the trailer and immobilize it. It was also undisputed that the defendant's driver was the only person who attempted to secure the trailer from rolling. There was no evidence that either the brake lines, landing gear or chocks were tampered with by anyone after the trailer was parked or that defendant had previous problems with anyone tampering with its vehicles on Purex's lot. 2 Though the instruction could more properly refer expressly to the defendant's right of control, see, e.g., the instructions in Niman v. Plaza House, Inc., 471 S.W.2d 207, 212 (Mo. banc 1971), in light of the undisputed evidence, the instruction's failure to refer to the defendant's right of control was not prejudicial. 3

IV

The remaining question is whether it was proper for plaintiff to comment during closing argument on defendant's failure to call as a witness one of defendant's employees, truck driver Clyde Riggs. Defendant argues that the comment was improper because the witness was equally available to both parties. Plaintiff claims the argument was proper because it was made in retaliation to an earlier argument made by defendant.

Defendant's driver Norman Caldwell, who had parked the trailer at the Purex Corporation loading dock before his shift ended at 8 a.m. the morning of the accident, testified that he was "most positive" that he properly chocked the trailer wheels with a wooden block four inches square before he unhitched the tractor from the trailer. From this defendant, who conceded during summation that the trailer wheels were not chocked at the time of the accident, argued that the block might have been removed for use on another trailer. It is to this argument that plaintiff claims his argument retaliated.

The argument in question is as follows:

[PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY]: They want to tell you how fair they are. They want to tell you, "Mr. Leehy, go home. Never mind your back. Never mind your problem."

Where was the driver? He's out there. He's the guy that brought the tractor there. Try to throw the blame, is that being fair with you people?

Number two, the driver who was on duty out there between eight and four, Riggs. Was Mr. Riggs put on the stand? He's still working out there. You want to talk about being fair? Mr. Leehy changing his testimony? You know what he's trying to do in this case, don't you?

[DEFENDANT'S ATTORNEY]: Again, Your Honor, I want to [object to] that characterization. He took Mr. Riggs' deposition and the witness is equally available to him.

THE COURT: Your objection is overruled.

[PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY]: You know, let's get a few facts. I think this jury knows what's going on in this case. You know, when you start thinking about it, you know, you bring in this and you bring in that. He's got two opposite contradictions: Somebody must have stole the block. You know, that trailer could have rolled.

Plaintiff's argument was not proper as retaliation. The tenor of plaintiff's argument is that defendant deliberately attempted to deceive the jury by concealing material evidence and laying the blame elsewhere. The argument in no real sense responds to defendant's argument. Earlier in his argument plaintiff had made the jury aware that "[t]here's no evidence" that the block was borrowed or stolen. The further argument at issue here was unnecessary to make that point and cannot be said to constitute proper retaliation.

Defendant's contention that the argument was improper because Riggs was equally available as a witness to both parties is meritorious.

The failure of a party to call a witness having knowledge of facts and circumstances vital to the case generally raises a presumption that the testimony would be unfavorable to the party failing to proffer it. Block v. Rackers, 256 S.W.2d 760, 764 (Mo.1953). It is improper, however, for a party to argue the negative inference resulting from his opponent's failure to produce such a witness if the witness is equally available to both parties. Hill v. Boles, 583 S.W.2d 141, 145 (Mo. banc 1979). The trial court's failure to sustain an objection to such an improper argument constitutes prejudicial error. Id.

Whether a witness is to be considered equally available to the parties on both sides of a lawsuit depends upon several factors. Included among those factors are (1) "o...

To continue reading

Request your trial
41 cases
  • Eagleburger v. Emerson Elec. Co., 16042
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Missouri (US)
    • 29 d5 Junho d5 1990
    ...case generally raises a presumption that the testimony would be unfavorable to the party failing to proffer it. Leehy v. Supreme Express & Transfer Co., 646 S.W.2d 786, 790 (Mo. banc 1983). Emerson reminds us, however, that it is improper for a party to argue the negative inference resultin......
  • Wells v. Missouri Property Ins. Placement Facility
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Missouri
    • 30 d4 Junho d4 1983
    ...assumption is erroneous. Certainly we have the authority to limit grants of transfer to a particular question. See Leehy v. Supreme Express & Transfer Co., 646 S.W.2d 786, 787 (Mo. banc 1983) (transfer granted on one of three issues in case). Nothing in Rule 83.03, however, indicates that a......
  • Simpson v. Johnson's Amoco Food Shop Inc.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Missouri (US)
    • 22 d2 Agosto d2 2000
    ...and, as such, she was entitled to argue the adverse inference created by Defendant's failure to call these witnesses. In Leehy v. Supreme Exp. & Transfer Co., the Missouri Supreme Court indicated that even if an employer-employee relationship exists, the employee is not necessarily more ava......
  • Callahan v. Cardinal Glennon Hosp.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Missouri
    • 26 d2 Outubro d2 1993
    ...from his opponent's failure to produce such a witness if the witness is equally available to both parties. Leehy v. Supreme Exp. & Transfer Co., 646 S.W.2d 786, 790 (Mo. banc 1983). Dr. Cantor was deposed by Danny's counsel and Dr. O'Reilly, as a treating physician, could have been deposed.......
  • 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