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Sochanski v. Sears

decided: May 2, 1980.

SOCHANSKI, STANLEY J., APPELLANT
v.
SEARS, ROEBUCK AND CO. ET AL., THE GOODYEAR TIRE & RUBBER CO. V. JOHN F. SOLOMON, JR., PALMER TIRE COMPANY, GENEVA METAL WHEELS CO.



ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. Civil No. 75-2903)

Before Hunter, Higginbotham and Sloviter, Circuit Judges.

Author: Higginbotham

Opinion OF THE COURT

Stanley Sochanski brought suit in the federal district court under diversity jurisdiction alleging that he had been injured while repairing a defective tire of a garden cart sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co. (Sears). A jury awarded damages to Sochanski but the district court granted a motion for judgment n.o.v. stating that Sochanski had not met the burden of proof which Pennsylvania law required to prove that the tire was defective. We disagree and will reverse so that judgment may be entered for the plaintiff.

I.

Sochanski was injured while attempting to repair a tire from a garden cart sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co. The tire was manufactured by Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. (Goodyear). The tire was mounted onto a metal frame (the wheel). This wheel unit (the tire and wheel) was purchased by the Palsgrove Manufacturing Co., which used the unit to make the garden cart, which was sold to Sears which, in turn, sold the cart to John Solomon in April, 1971.

In July, 1974 Solomon noticed that one of the garden cart's tires was losing air and took the tire to the Palmer Tire Co. (Palmer) to have an inner tube inserted. The tire was originally a tubeless tire; Solomon felt that an inner tube would stop the leakage problem. Sochanski, an employee of Palmer, was assigned the repair job. At trial he testified about how he had tried to repair the tire. He stated that he first removed the tire from the wheel so that he could remove the valve stem from the wheel because the inner tube had its own valve. After removing the original valve stem, he put one side of the tire onto the wheel, pulling it over the edge of the wheel (flange) with a small crowbar specially designed for that purpose. He explained that the edge of the tire (the bead) was built up slightly so that it would fit snugly against the flange. (Goodyear's expert explained that the bead is constructed of steel wires). He also explained that the edge of the tire was slightly smaller than the wheel on which it was to be placed so that the tire would lie taut against the flange when stretched to fit on the wheel.

After removing the tire he fit the inner tube on the wheel, checked the valve stem, and inflated the inner tube slightly. He explained that he inflated the tube so it would mold onto the wheel and thus not become folded or twisted. Next he lubricated the other side of the tire so that it could be put onto the wheel easily and pulled that side over the flange with the crowbars. Thus both sides were fastened onto the wheel within the two flanges. He then inflated the inner tube to fifteen pounds of air pressure and stopped to check the tire. He noticed that one edge of the tire was not securely against the flange. Although this was unusual, he felt that the bead would fit more securely once the tire was fully inflated. He then pumped the tire to the required thirty-four pounds of pressure. Again, he noticed that the tire was not securely against the flange. He testified that he figured "something else was wrong" and decided to take the unit apart to try a second time. As he leaned toward the tire to take it apart, the tire burst. The unit shot upwards and struck him in the head rendering him unconscious. Sochanski stated that the procedure he had used to fix the tire was the procedure which was regularly followed at Palmer. Edward Ortman, a fellow employee, concurred. As a result of the accident he suffered a concussion, fracture of the facial bone, spinal fluid rhinorrhea, and spinal meningitis. He was permanently deformed. He has lost his sense of smell and suffers a diminution of his IQ.

Sochanski brought suit, alleging that the tire was defective when Goodyear sold the tire to Palsgrove and through the chain of sales described above, Sears, the final seller, had sold a defective tire to Solomon and the defect had caused Sochanski's injuries. He asserted that under section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts (1965) Sears and Goodyear were strictly liable for his injuries. At trial he attempted to call Vassilis Morfopoulos as an expert witness. He asserts here that Morfopoulos is an expert on tire safety and would have testified that the tire and the wheel were mismatched and that this mismatch created strain on the tire causing it to pop off the wheel. The district court did not permit Morfopoulos to testify on the ground that Morfopoulos was not qualified.

The jury found, in response to special interrogatories, that the tire was defective when it left Goodyear's hands, that the defect rendered it unreasonably dangerous, that the wheel unit was defective when it was sold by Sears, that the wheel unit was unreasonably dangerous, and that the defect was the proximate cause of Sochanski's injuries. The jury awarded $395,000 in damages. In response to a motion for judgment n.o.v. the district court set aside the jury's verdict. The court held that under section 402A a plaintiff is required to negate abnormal use and reasonable secondary causes, and that the plaintiff's proof had fallen short of negating reasonable secondary causes.

Sochanski appeals the district court's decision. He argues that the district court erred as a matter of law because he had met his burden of proof and that the district court abused its discretion by not permitting one of Sochanski's expert witnesses to testify.*fn1

II.

Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts provides for strict liability of a seller when a defective product he has sold is the ...


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