Mauch v. Manufacturers Sales & Service, Inc., 10431

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Dakota
Citation345 N.W.2d 338
Docket NumberNo. 10431,10431
PartiesKathleen MAUCH and Harold Mauch, Plaintiffs, Appellees, and Cross-Appellants, v. MANUFACTURERS SALES & SERVICE, INC., a foreign corporation, Defendant, Appellant, Cross-Appellee, and Third-Party Plaintiff, and Amalgamated Cordage Corp., a foreign corporation, Dixie Industries, Inc., a foreign corporation, and Farm and Home Supply, Inc., Defendants and Third-Party Defendants. Civ.
Decision Date02 February 1984

Robert P. Bennett, of Kelsch, Kelsch, Bennett, Ruff & Austin, Bismarck, for plaintiffs, appellees, and cross-appellants.

Leonard H. Bucklin, of Zuger & Bucklin, Bismarck, for defendant, appellant, and cross-appellee.

VANDE WALLE, Justice.

Kathleen Mauch was injured while using a "Mr. Big Tow" nylon rope, manufactured by the defendant, Manufacturers Sales & Service, Inc. ("Manufacturers"), to pull-start one tractor with another on the Mauchs' farm. Kathleen was driving the pulling tractor when the hook attached to the other tractor broke. The nylon rope instantly recoiled towards Kathleen's tractor hurling the broken hook which was still attached to it through the tractor cab window striking Kathleen and injuring her seriously.

Kathleen and her husband, Harold, sued Manufacturers on theories of negligence and strict products liability. The Mauchs asserted that Manufacturers negligently breached a duty to warn Kathleen that nylon rope when stretched and then released may recoil with tremendous force. The Mauchs also asserted that the nylon rope, because it was sold without an adequate warning of its dangerous recoil propensities, was in a defective and unreasonably dangerous condition; that the lack of adequate warning caused Kathleen's injuries; and that Manufacturers should be held strictly liable. Manufacturers asserted as a defense at the trial that Kathleen's injuries were proximately caused by her own negligent use of the tow rope. In support of that assertion, it introduced evidence that the hook broke and recoiled toward Kathleen's tractor cab because she had attached the rope to the tractor being pulled by placing the hook into a hole located on the drawbar instead of properly inserting the hook into a clevis and drawpin arrangement.

The trial court, concluding that the differences between the strict liability and negligence theories of recovery in this case were imperceptible, refused to instruct the jury on strict liability, and the case was submitted solely on the Mauchs' negligence theory. The jury returned a special verdict by which it found that the proximate cause of Kathleen's injuries was 50 percent attributable to Manufacturers' negligence and 50 percent attributable to Kathleen's negligence. The district court, properly applying the jury's findings to our comparative-negligence law, Section 9-10-07, N.D.C.C., determined that because Kathleen's negligence was as great as Manufacturers' negligence she was not entitled to recover any damages, and the court entered judgment accordingly.

Thereafter, the Mauchs filed a motion for new trial under Rule 59, N.D.R.Civ.P., by which they raised numerous grounds for their request. On February 22, 1983, the district court entered an order granting the Mauchs a new trial on the ground that there had been an irregularity in the jury proceedings because the jury had disregarded the instructions of the court. Manufacturers has appealed from that order granting the Mauchs a new trial, and the Mauchs have filed an appeal from the judgment and a cross-appeal from the order granting a new trial through which they assert that the court erred in refusing to base its grant of a new trial on several of the grounds raised by them. We reverse the judgment and the court's order granting the Mauchs a new trial on their negligence action, and we remand this case for a new trial solely on the Mauchs' cause of action in strict products liability.

In disposing of this case, we find it necessary to resolve the following issues:

(1) Whether or not the district court erred in granting the Mauchs a new trial on the ground that there was irregularity in the jury proceedings whereby the jury disregarded the instructions given to it by the court.

(2) Whether or not the district court erred in refusing to grant the Mauchs a new trial on the ground that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury verdict.

(3) Whether or not the district court erred in refusing to grant the Mauchs a new trial on the ground that the court's application of our comparative-negligence law, Section 9-10-07, N.D.C.C., to this case violated the Mauchs' equal-protection and due-process rights under the Federal and State Constitutions.

(4) Whether or not the district court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on a strict products-liability theory of recovery.

(5) Whether or not the plaintiffs' negligence is a defense to a strict products-liability claim.

(6) Whether or not the district court erred in denying certain expert witness fees and other costs requested by Manufacturers.

Manufacturers asserts that the district court erred in granting the Mauchs a new trial on the ground that there was irregularity in the jury proceedings because the jury disregarded the instructions given to it by the court. The decision to grant or deny a new trial rests within the discretion of the trial court and will not be set aside on appeal unless a manifest abuse of discretion is shown. Cook v. Stenslie, 251 N.W.2d 393 (N.D.1977). We conclude that the district court abused its discretion in granting the Mauchs a new trial on their negligence claim against Manufacturers.

Through its special verdict, the jury found that Manufacturers' negligent conduct and Kathleen's negligent conduct each contributed 50 percent toward the proximate causation of Kathleen's injuries. Under the last special-verdict question, the jury was requested to determine the total damages "as defined in these instructions." The jury had been instructed to determine the amount of the plaintiffs' damages in dollars "without diminution for negligence." The jury answered the special-verdict question inserting $230,000 damages for Kathleen and $15,400 damages for Harold. Because the jury found Kathleen's negligence was as great as Manufacturers', the Mauchs were not entitled to any recover against Manufacturers, and judgment was entered accordingly.

Subsequent to entry of the judgment in this case, all the jurors signed affidavits stating that the jury had decided that Kathleen's negligence "was not as great as that of Manufacturers ..." and further stating that the jury had intended that the Mauchs would actually receive the amount of damages inserted in the special-verdict form. One of the jurors also published an article in The Bismarck Tribune revealing that the jurors' intentions were substantially those that had been revealed in the juror affidavits. On the basis of the juror affidavits and the published article, the district court made the following determination, as revealed by its memorandum decision dated February 22, 1983:

"Had the jury apprehended the instructions and the result of their verdict in this case, it is the Court's opinion that it would have changed its findings and that they corrupted their verdict by failing to follow the instructions that this Court gave them. It is my opinion that the jury first determined the result and then proceeded to work backwards. They failed to follow the instructions regarding how they should proceed in determining damages only after they determined liability. This Court believes that the jury did one before the other in a reverse way."

Concluding that there had been irregularity in the jury proceedings by the jury's failure to follow the court's instructions, the district court granted the Mauchs a new trial on their negligence claim under Rule 59, N.D.R.Civ.P.

It is improper for a court to consider juror affidavits for purposes of impeaching a verdict relative to the mental processes or reasoning of the jurors in arriving at a decision. Keyes v. Amundson, 343 N.W.2d 78 (N.D.1983); State v. Bergeron, 340 N.W.2d 51 (N.D.1983); Kerzmann v. Rohweder, 321 N.W.2d 84 (N.D.1982); Grenz v. Werre, 129 N.W.2d 681 (N.D.1964). It is also improper to use juror affidavits to show that the jurors misconceived the legal consequences of their factual findings or the ramifications of their answers to special-verdict questions. See Kerzmann v. Rohweder, supra; Gardner v. Germain, 264 Minn. 61, 117 N.W.2d 759 (1962); Bauer v. Kummer, 244 Minn. 488, 70 N.W.2d 273 (1955).

In Grenz, supra, 129 N.W.2d at 692, we quoted, in relevant part, State v. Forrester, 14 N.D. 335, 338, 103 N.W. 625, 626 (1905):

"It would greatly tend to unsettle verdicts if a juror be permitted to say, after it is too late to be remedied, that he did not understand the charge of the court. To do so would result in continual embarrassment and interminable controversy after trials, although a verdict had been duly and solemnly announced. It would subject jurors to constant annoyance by being called upon to state the occurrences of the jury room, which ought to be kept secret as well as privileged. It would subject jurors to influences by corrupt parties in an effort to have them impair their verdict after they had ceased to act as jurors. Although injustice may at times result from thus holding verdicts solemnly rendered unassailable by affidavits of jurors as to their not understanding the charge or as to their reasons for agreements, we deem it the better rule, and subject to less liability to injustice, that a verdict actually rendered shall be conclusively deemed to be a verdict, and beyond impeachment by the declaration of a juror as to a mental condition existing when he agreed upon a verdict, or as to his reasons for so agreeing."

Subsequent to our decision in Grenz, supra, we adopted Rule 606(b), N.D.R.Ev., which provides that when there is an inquiry into the...

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