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GRIFFITH v. CLEARFIELD TRUCK RENTALS (09/26/67)

decided: September 26, 1967.

GRIFFITH
v.
CLEARFIELD TRUCK RENTALS, INC., APPELLANT



Appeal from judgment of Court of Common Pleas of Indiana County, June T., 1964, No. 519, in case of Forrest Griffith v. Clearfield Truck Rentals, Inc.

COUNSEL

Robert S. Grigsby, with him Giles J. Gaca, James Jack, and Pringle, Bredin, Thomson, Rhodes & Grigsby, for appellant.

Edward L. Edelstein, with him Joseph L. Ehrenreich, William G. Klenk, II, Donald M. Miller, and Ehrenreich, Sidkoff, Edelstein & Shusterman, and Miller & Cope, for appellee.

Bell, C. J., Musmanno, Jones, Cohen, Eagen, O'Brien and Roberts, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice O'Brien.

Author: O'brien

[ 427 Pa. Page 31]

This action of trespass was brought by plaintiff-appellee to recover damages for bodily injuries suffered when a tractor trailer which he was operating left the

[ 427 Pa. Page 32]

    roadway. Plaintiff-appellee contended that a locking of the steering caused the tractor trailer to leave the roadway, and that this locking was caused by defendant-appellant's negligence in maintaining the tractor. The case was tried before a judge and jury, which returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff-appellee in the sum of $136,520.47. Defendant-appellant filed motions for judgment n.o.v., or in the alternative, for a new trial. The court below refused both motions in an opinion dated January 9, 1967, and this appeal followed the entry of judgment on the verdict.

At the time of the accident, appellee, a resident of Homer City, Pennsylvania, was employed by the Hartford Provision Company, Inc., of Stamford, Connecticut, as a truck driver, having been so employed since 1960. Hartford, about two years prior to the accident, entered into a lease agreement with the appellant for the use of its tractor trailers, one of which was driven by appellee. Under the terms of the lease between the appellant and Hartford, appellant agreed in writing, inter alia, to furnish and maintain the motor vehicles in good repair and running condition. The particular truck assigned to appellee was a 1959 Mack tractor which, at the time of the accident, had been driven some 480,000 miles. Appellee, in the course of his duties for Hartford, would pick up the truck at appellant's garage at Clearfield, Pennsylvania, would then proceed with the empty vehicle to Sioux City, Iowa, where he would obtain a load of beef and take it to Stamford, Connecticut, and would then return the tractor trailer to the garage of appellant at Clearfield, Pennsylvania. This trip was approximately 2500 miles and was driven by appellee weekly for over a year prior to the accident.

In March of 1962, appellee noticed definite vibrations in the steering column and that the truck at times wandered on the road. Appellee again noticed

[ 427 Pa. Page 33]

    a similar condition on June 6 and 7 in 1962, and a report of the trouble with the vehicle was given to appellee's employer. Appellee also testified that he had told one of the employee's of defendant company about his troubles with the steering. The record is devoid of any evidence that the appellant had paid any particular notice to the notations given of the trouble with the steering, or that any attempt was made to remedy the trouble. On June 8, 1962, appellee again reported the problem he was having by placing notice of it on a piece of paper and posting the paper on the bulletin board in appellant's garage. After this notice had been given to appellant, appellee again made the normal 2500 mile run with the tractor in question, experiencing no difficulty with the steering throughout the run, and so indicated on the report he made to his employer. On June 17, 1962, at approximately 5:15 P.M., appellee left appellant's garage in Clearfield with the empty tractor trailer. He was en route from Clearfield to his home in Homer City, prior to making the trip to Sioux City, Iowa, when the accident occurred on Route 296, north of Commodore, at approximately 6 P.M. At a point some 40 miles from the Clearfield garage, and approximately 200 yards before reaching a left-hand curve in the road, appellee once again experienced noise and vibration in the steering wheel and the truck began to wander. He removed his foot from the accelerator, as from experience on prior occasions, he had learned that this gradual slowing was a corrective measure in which the noise and vibrations and wandering of the truck ceased. At the time he first felt this vibration, he was traveling at approximately 40 miles per hour, and after taking his foot from the accelerator, the truck slowed down to approximately 35 miles per hour. As he reached the left-hand curve in the road, he felt his steering apparatus lock, and as a result of his inability to turn the wheel,

[ 427 Pa. Page 34]

    the truck went off the right-hand side of the road, struck something, came back across the highway and went down over an embankment and came to rest. As a result of this accident, appellee sustained serious bodily injuries and was in a semi-conscious state for some time.

Shortly following the accident, the tractor was completely disassembled by appellant. As the result of this disassembling, none of the expert witnesses who testified for either side viewed either the tractor or the alleged defective parts.

At the trial, Mr. Isaac Stewart, a consulting engineer testifying as an expert for appellee, expressed his opinion that the only condition which could cause noise, vibration, wandering, and locking of the steering wheel, was defective maintenance of the wheel balance, tire pressure, and/or tie rods in the suspension mechanism of the steering, which causes vibrations, which in turn was transmitted through the linkages to the rear steering universal joint. He was also of the opinion that the vibrations caused something to break in the universal joint, but was unable to say exactly which of the several parts in the universal joint it was. Mr. Stewart, on cross-examination, also admitted that the failure of the steering apparatus could have resulted from a latent metal defect, and as he had not seen the broken pieces, he was unable to state whether the defect could have been discovered upon reasonable inspection on the part of the appellant. The trial judge noted in his opinion that throughout the cross-examination, Mr. Stewart did not waiver in his opinion that the locking of the steering was caused by the ...


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