Speyer, Inc. v. Humble Oil and Refining Company

Decision Date12 November 1968
Docket NumberNo. 17057,17058.,17057
Citation403 F.2d 766
PartiesSPEYER, INC., and Yellow Cab Company of Erie, Appellants, v. HUMBLE OIL AND REFINING COMPANY and A. O. Smith Corporation. Speyer, Inc., Appellant in No. 17057. Yellow Cab Company of Erie, Appellant in No. 17058.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

John G. Gent, Quinn, Plate, Gent, Buseck & Leemhuis, William Knox, Knox, Graham, Pearson & McLaughlin, Erie, Pa., for appellants.

Cloyd R. Mellott, Eckert, Seamans & Cherin, Pittsburgh, Pa., John M. Wolford, Dunn & Wolford, Erie, Pa., Barton Z. Cowan, Pittsburgh Pa., on the brief, for appellee, Humble Oil & Refining Co.

Raymond G. Hasley, Rose, Schmidt & Dixon, Pittsburgh, Pa. (Roger Curran, Pittsburgh, Pa., on the brief), for appellee, A. O. Smith Corp.

Before McLAUGHLIN, KALODNER and ALDISERT, Circuit Judges.

OPINION OF THE COURT

ALDISERT, Circuit Judge:

A gasoline fire destroyed plaintiff Speyer's garage and sixty-five taxicabs owned by plaintiff Yellow Cab Company of Erie, a tenant of Speyer. A diversity suit to recover the fire damage was instituted in the District Court against Humble Oil and Refining Company, a gasoline supplier, and A. O. Smith Corporation, successor-in-interest to the manufacturer of a certain gasoline pump. A twelve-day non-jury trial followed, and the court, after receiving 2,000 pages of transcribed testimony, rendered judgment in favor of both defendants.1 Both plaintiffs have appealed from the trial judge's findings and conclusions.

In April, 1954 an Erie Meter Systems Model #910 gasoline pump was installed in the garage by Cemico, then the gasoline supplier of Yellow Cab. The pump was purchased from Erie Meter Systems by Cemico. In October, 1955 Yellow Cab changed its supplier from Cemico to Humble, and purchased Cemico's pump. As an accommodation to its new customer, Humble purchased the pump from Yellow Cab and leased it back on a free basis. Yellow Cab employed no regular gasoline pump attendants; each driver filled his cab's tank at the completion of his shift.

As required by the equipment lease, Humble serviced and repaired the equipment from time to time, either through its own employees or through the services of independent contractors. In October, 1963 one of these contractors, Jabe, installed, a new type heavy-duty flexsteel hose on the pump.2 In April, 1964 two mishaps occurred. On April 20, the bumper of a cab hooked the flexsteel hose, and, as the driver drove his vehicle in the garage, the hose stretched extensively, and a quantity of gasoline leaked from the pumping equipment to the floor. Yellow Cab then shut down the pump. An investigation by the service contractor disclosed that a metal meter casting had fractured within the pump; the entire meter unit, including the metal cover casting was replaced, and the pump returned to service.

Nine days later, on April 29, a similar incident occurred. One of the drivers failed to remove the hose from his cab's tank before driving away from the pump. This caused the hose to jerk and stretch violently, bending the metal pipe coupling to which it was attached at the pump. Although most of the Yellow Cab employees witnessing this misadventure were aware of the leakage which had followed the accident nine days before, no one inspected the pump. Instead, another driver who had observed the violent jerking of the hose proceeded to place the pump in operation to fill his own tank. Shortly thereafter, gasoline was discovered on the floor near the pump. This time the spilled gasoline erupted into flames, and the entire building and a large number of cabs were destroyed.

All parties agreed that the leakage of gasoline had been caused by the inability of the pump mechanism to relieve excess pressure which had been created within the system. The basic factual dispute was on the issue of what caused a dysfunction of certain pressure-relief valves.

The pre-trial statement of the plaintiffs and their evidence presented at trial disclose that they proceeded on various theories of liability. As to Humble: (1) defendant should be held to "the strict liability doctrine as applied to suppliers as well as manufacturers of equipment"3; (2) defendant breached the high degree of care to which it should be held because the equipment dispensed "a highly volatile and dangerous substance"4; (3) defendant failed to inspect and maintain the equipment properly, "and as a result thereof, the relief valve system malfunctioned" due to "* * * either a clogging with excessive grit or dirt, or to improper adjustment by Humble Oil Company or its agents"; (4) defendant provided a pump containing a casting which was "not adequate or proper".

As to A. O. Smith: (1) defendant improperly designed the meter head, furnishing a casting of "relatively poor grade material and the thickness of the casting was less than required under good engineering principles and practices"; (2) defendant failed to provide "fail safe" devices to furnish a warning relating to the buildup of pressures.5

The defendants contended that the proximate cause of the fire was the negligence of the Yellow Cab driver in failing to remove the nozzle from the tank prior to the cab's pulling away from the pump. They produced testimony that the pulling of the hose caused the steel components of the hose to contract, creating a buildup of pressure which led to the fracture of the casting.6

The court agreed with the defendants. It concluded that the fire was caused by the negligence of the plaintiff Yellow Cab, specifically indicating that the fire resulted from:

"* * * the failure of the driver whose duty it was to remove the nozzle from the filler pipe before driving away from the pump, so to do. Nor is it a defense to argue as plaintiff does, that he could not have been aware of the exact nature of the danger involved; it is sufficient that he be, or should be, reasonably aware that the natural consequences of his act be dangerous."

The court said it had no difficulty in finding that the failure to remove the nozzle from the tank was negligence and that "such negligence was the proximate cause of the fire".

Rule 52 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that "findings of fact shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the trial court to judge the credibility of the witnesses". The Court defined the meaning of "clearly erroneous" in United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395, 68 S.Ct. 525, 542, 92 L.Ed. 746 (1949): "A finding is `clearly erroneous' when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed."

In reviewing the decision of the District Court, our responsibility is not to substitute findings we could have made had we been the fact-finding tribunal; our sole function is to review the record to determine whether the findings of the District Court were clearly erroneous, i. e., whether we are "left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed". Eastern Express, Inc. v. Mack Warehouse Corp., 326 F.2d 554 (3 Cir. 1964); International Industries, Inc. v. Warren Petroleum Corp., 248 F.2d 696 (3 Cir. 1959), cert. denied, 355 U.S. 943, 78 S.Ct. 529, 2 L.Ed.2d 523 (1959); Williams v. Babcock & Wilcox Co., 262 F.2d 253 (3 Cir. 1959), cert. denied, 359 U.S. 969, 79 S.Ct. 880, 3 L.Ed.2d 836 (1959).

The basic evidence on liability was introduced by expert witnesses. The matter of weighing the credibility and persuasiveness of expert opinion is the unique function of the trier of fact. We stated in Brett v. J. M. Carras, Inc., 203 F.2d 451 (3 Cir. 1953), that the findings of the trial judge will not be disturbed "where those findings are based on conflicting oral testimony and where, as here, the district court had full opportunity to observe the witnesses and to appraise their demeanor." 203 F.2d at 453. More recently, in Hadco Products, Inc. v. Frank Dini Co., 401 F.2d 462 (1968), we ruled that a choice between two permissible views by the fact finder is not "clearly erroneous" within the meaning of Rule 52.

The District Court accepted the testimony of the defense witnesses and rejected that of the plaintiffs. We cannot conclude that it was clearly erroneous to do so.

Plaintiffs now assert an alternative argument: that defendants were negligent in installing the flexsteel hose because it was foreseeable that certain uses of this hose would cause an extraordinary internal pressure which would fracture the meter casting. They argue that both defendants were chargeable with such knowledge, and hence were negligent in not rectifying the condition or issuing a warning about it. The argument is ingenious when viewed in the context of the history of this case. This theory was not advanced by plaintiffs in their pre-trial statements nor in their case-in-chief; moreover, the thrust of their own expert testimony was that the flexsteel hose could not have created the rupture in the casting. The examination of plaintiffs' expert Crankshaw (Appendix, page 657a) reveals:

"Q. Is it your testimony, then, that if the high pressure relief valve was clean, that the jerking of the hose on the morning of April 29, 1964, could not have ruptured the cover of the meter?
A. I think that is correct."

Apart from this patently inconsistent position of plaintiffs, the testimony indicated that the Underwriter's Laboratories, the recognized testing agency in the trade,7 had placed its stamp of approval on the use of the flexsteel hose with gasoline pumps and that the hose was in general use in the trade.8 It was only during the progress of this case that experts retained by defendants to conduct experiments for trial testimony discovered the peculiar characteristics of...

To continue reading

Request your trial
53 cases
  • Southern Pacific Communications Co. v. American Tel. and Tel. Co.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit
    • June 26, 1984
    ...i.e., whether we are 'left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.' " Speyer, Inc. v. Humble Oil and Refining Co., 403 F.2d 766, 770 (3d Cir.1968). It is the responsibility of an appellate court to accept the ultimate factual determination of the fact-finder u......
  • Sikkelee v. AVCO Corp.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Middle District of Pennsylvania
    • August 3, 2017
    ...561 (3d Cir. 1966). Changes "too remote to require reasonable prevision need not be anticipated." Speyer, Inc. v. Humble Oil & Ref. Co. , 403 F.2d 766, 771 (3d Cir. 1968) (Aldisert, J.) (quoting Brady v. Southern Ry. Co. , 320 U.S. 476, 483, 64 S.Ct. 232, 88 L.Ed. 239 (1943) ).An illustrati......
  • Davis v. Berwind Corp.
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • May 19, 1994
    ...meat grinder; there was evidence that the employer removed the guard to speed up the grinding process); Speyer, Inc. v. Humble Oil & Refining Company, 403 F.2d 766 (3d Cir.1968) (applying Pennsylvania law, the court found that substantial change in the condition of a gasoline pump precluded......
  • Chalfant v. Wilmington Institute
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit
    • February 27, 1978
    ... ... involved a private enterprise public utility company. Starting from the premise that the creation and ... Rayonier Inc. v. Polson, 400 F.2d 909, 923 (9th Cir. 1968); see Bowles ... conviction that a mistake has been committed.' " Speyer, Inc. v. Humble ... Page 753 ... Oil and Refining Co., ... ...
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Trial of a Products Liability Case: Defendant's View
    • United States
    • Colorado Bar Association Colorado Lawyer No. 2-2, December 1972
    • Invalid date
    ...1955). 23 Defense Research Institute, "Defense of a Products Case," p. 10, vol. 1971, no. 11. 24 Id. § 395. 25 275 F. Supp. 861; affirmed 403 F.2d 766 (1968). 26 367 F.2d 751 (7 Cir. 1966), Defense Research Institute, Brief No. 67-6. 27 210 F.2d 409 (3 Cir. 1954). 28 See also 242 N.E. 2d 12......

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