Salter v. Westra

Decision Date09 July 1990
Docket NumberNo. 89-7403,89-7403
Citation904 F.2d 1517
PartiesJohn SALTER and Betty Salter, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Billy M. WESTRA and North American Van Lines, Inc., Defendants-Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Patrick W. Richardson, Denise A. Ferguson, Bell, Richardson & Sparkman, Huntsville, Ala., for defendants-appellants.

David H. Meginniss, Hornsby, Watson & Meginniss, Huntsville, Ala., for plaintiff-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

Before COX, Circuit Judge, HILL * and SMITH **, Senior Circuit Judges.

HILL, Senior Circuit Judge:


This appeal concerns a tort action based upon alleged negligence and wantonness resulting in injuries to John Salter, appellee. A tire became detached from a moving tractor-truck and hit Salter as he was working at a construction site on an interstate highway. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Salter on both claims. The defendants appeal several rulings by the trial court.

A. Issues Presented

Appellants Billy Westra and North American Van Lines, Inc. ("North American") raise three distinct categories of issues on appeal. First, appellants claim that the trial court erroneously failed to instruct the jury as to the "mechanical defect or failure" doctrine as it applied to the negligence claim. Second, that the trial court incorrectly overruled objections to certain leading questions and questions regarding Mr. and Mrs. Salters' financial status and the psychological trauma experienced by the couple's two young sons as a result of the injuries to Mr. Salter. Finally, appellants argue that the trial court erred in submitting the wantonness claim to the jury.

We hold that the trial court did not err in refusing to give the jury appellants' requested "mechanical defect or failure" instruction; nor is there cause for reversal in the trial court's handling of certain questions and testimony at trial. 1 The trial court did err, however, when it refused to direct a verdict in favor of the appellants on the wantonness claim.

B. Facts and Procedural History

On May 6, 1986, Appellant Billy Westra, a truck driver with 23 years of over-the-road driving experience, began an early morning trip after he conducted a mandatory pre-trip visual inspection of his 1973 tractor-truck, which was leased to Appellant North American. Westra was on the road approximately one hour when he approached a construction site on an interstate highway in Alabama. Westra testified that he neither saw nor felt anything to indicate a mechanical problem with his truck before the cab suddenly lurched downward when the left two wheels of the front drive axle separated from the vehicle. 2 The wheels remained upright and gained momentum after detaching, one wheel sped in front of the truck and continued to the right side of the road without incident; the other wheel veered left, rolled up an embankment where John Salter and others were working at an overpass construction project, bounced off a concrete abutment, and knocked Salter and one other person to the ground.

Salter was treated at a nearby hospital and released later that day to be taken to his home in Mississippi. With the exception of certain objections made by the defendants to a number of questions regarding the extent of his permanent injury, see footnote 1 supra, Salter's injuries and the measure of his compensatory damages are not subject to this appeal.

Mr. Salter filed a complaint based upon negligence and wantonness against Westra and North American. 3 Mr. Salter's wife, Betty Salter, asserted a claim for loss of consortium. The jury returned a verdict against the defendants on the negligence claim and assessed compensatory damages in the amount of $250,000. The jury also found against the defendants on the wantonness claim and assessed $789,000 in punitive damages. The jury found against Betty Salter on her loss of consortium claim. 4

The evidence at trial established that all ten lug bolts which fastened the wheels to the truck sheared off at the point where the smooth neck and threading met on each bolt. A mechanic who repaired the tractor-truck and two expert witnesses testified regarding possible causes of the accident. 5 All three witnesses testified that prior to the accident they had never encountered nor even heard of a situation in which all the lugs that fasten a wheel to its hub had sheared off at once. 6

A number of different theories were presented to the jury of the possible causes for the accident. They included (1) over-torquing of the lug nuts, (2) and/or metal fatigue in the lug bolts, (3) driving with loose lug nuts, or (4) excessive corrosion of the lug bolts.

Since the wheels were retrieved and repaired shortly after the accident, much of the physical evidence was not preserved. The opinions offered at trial relied heavily upon the mechanic's description of the physical state of the wheels and the tire hub before he repaired them. According to the mechanic, the portions of the lug bolts still remaining within the wheel hub were corroded, and the outer portion of the detached wheels exhibited rust streaks.

Salter's expert expressed his opinion that the wheels came off due to poor maintenance and inspection. Under this theory, Westra either (1) operated his truck with loose lug nuts, which eventually caused the lug bolts to weaken and shear; or (2) simply neglected maintenance of the wheels to the point that the lug bolts sheared as a result of rust and corrosion, regardless of whether the lug nuts were loose.

The defendants' experts testified that the exact cause of the accident could not be determined with any degree of certainty and that over-torquing and latent metal fatigue were possible causes.

Westra testified that although he was uncertain as to the last date on which the wheels had been removed prior to the accident, he was sure that a "wheel and nut check" was performed on the truck as part of a semi-annual comprehensive inspection required by the Interstate Commerce Commission. As mentioned above, Westra testified that he also made a visual inspection of the entire tractor-trailer unit approximately one hour prior to the accident.


A. The "Mechanical Defect or Failure" Defense

Under Erie v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938), we look to Alabama law to determine whether the trial court erred in refusing appellants' proffered instruction on its "mechanical failure or defect" defense.

The most common expressions of the "sudden emergency" and "mechanical defect or failure" doctrines do not apply to the facts of this case. Although these doctrines differ according to the nature of the unusual occurrence alleged to have affected a driver's ability, under most circumstances they both refer to a standard of care applicable to allegedly negligent conduct in the operation of a motor vehicle in the face of unexpected circumstances. As explained below, in many instances the "mechanical defect or failure" doctrine is a sub-species of the "sudden emergency" doctrine. That is, a "mechanical defect or failure" can generate the "sudden emergency" circumstances under which the driver's conduct is evaluated. This common application of the these doctrines does not relate to claims of negligence premised solely on the maintenance and care of a vehicle.

The Alabama Supreme Court recently restated the doctrine of "sudden emergency" as it applies to allegedly negligent conduct in the face of sudden circumstances that a reasonable driver could not foresee.

"[I]f a person, a motorist, without fault of his own is faced with a sudden emergency, he is not held to the same correctness of judgment and action as if he had time and opportunity to fully consider the situation. And the fact--if it be a fact--that he does not choose the best or safest way of escaping peril or preventing injury, it's [sic] not necessarily negligence. But, the standard of care required in an emergency situation is that care which a reasonable and prudent motorist would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances."

Kinard v. Carter, 518 So.2d 1248, 1250-51 (Ala.1987), quoting Williams v. Worthington, 386 So.2d 408, 409 (Ala.1980). The defendant in Kinard encountered a "gadget ... like a recap" lying in his lane of traffic and claimed that he had no time to dodge the object without placing himself and his passengers in great peril. After hitting the object, one of the car's tires blew and caused a loss of power in the steering and brakes. The defendant's automobile veered in several directions before it crossed into the lane of oncoming traffic and struck the plaintiff's vehicle. The jury found in favor of the defendant in an action based upon negligence and wanton conduct.

On appeal, the plaintiffs claimed that the trial court erred in giving a "sudden emergency" instruction. The Alabama Supreme Court held that the evidence as a whole supported the trial court's decision that "a jury question was presented as to whether a sudden emergency existed [as to the encounter with the recap] and, if so, whether under the circumstances the defendant met the standard of prudence required [when he drove over the recap rather than attempting to dodge it]." Kinard, 518 So.2d at 1251, citing Williams, 386 So.2d at 409. Thus, the Kinard court held that the manner of driving over the object rather than swerving to avoid it was to be judged in light of "the standard of care ... which a reasonable and prudent motorist would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances." Id. at 1250-51.

The plaintiffs in Kinard also challenged the decision to instruct the jury on the "mechanical defect or failure doctrine." The trial court had charged the jury that:

It's the duty of the owner or the operator of the motor vehicle to see that it's reasonably safe--the vehicle--before operating it on a public highway. And where,...

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