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Barris v. Chutes

filed: August 6, 1982.

BARBARA ELLEN BARRIS, ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF ARNOLD LEROY BARRIS, III, DECEASED, APPELLANT
v.
BOB'S DRAG CHUTES & SAFETY EQUIPMENT, INC., A MICHIGAN CORPORATION, AND STAN HOOVER, INDIVIDUALLY AND T/D/B/A STAN HOOVER, JR. RACING ENTERPRISES, APPELLEES



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA -- PITTSBURGH.

Gibbons, Hunter, Circuit Judges, and Thompson,*fn* District Judge.

Author: Hunter

Opinion OF THE COURT

HUNTER, Circuit Judge.

INTRODUCTION

1. Barbara Ellen Barris brought this diversity action against the manufacturer and retailer of a shoulder harness, alleging that her husband died as a result of a defect in the harness he was wearing when his sprint car flipped during a collision. After the plaintiff's case-in-chief, the district court directed a verdict for defendant, Bob's Drag Chutes and Safety Equipment, Inc. ("Bob's"), based on the court's conclusion that plaintiff had failed to present a prima facie "crashworthiness" case.*fn1 We have concluded that the district court erred in directing the verdict and will remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

FACTS

2. On the evening of May 28, 1978, Arnold Leroy Barris, III was killed as he was driving his sprint car in a race at the Tri-City Speedway in Franklin, Pennsylvania. Decedent's sprint car was equipped with a shoulder harness, lap belt, arm restraints and a helmet. During the second heat, the front wheel of the decedent's race car collided with the left rear tire of another sprint car. The collision caused decedent's car to be catapulted into the air. The car then flipped end-over-end a number of times before coming to rest on its wheels.

3. Witnesses testified that, when the car was in the second flip, decedent's body appeared to come loose inside the roll cage of his car. Evidence produced at trial shows that decedent's head, which was protected by a helmet, hit the roll bars of the car during the flips. The parties stipulated that decedent was killed as a result of the injuries he sustained as the sprint car flipped end-over-end. Appendix at 19-20. After the crash, a rescue crew removed decedent's helmet, lap belt and arm restraints as they extricated decedent from his car. Witnesses who saw the car after the crash testified that the shoulder harness in decedent's car had disintegrated. There was testimony that the shoulder harness was in excellent condition when it, along with the rest of the car, was cleaned before the race. Testimony at trial also indicated that decedent's mechanic, who had inspected the car's safety harness and lap belt prior to the race, agreed with this assessment. Appendix at 144-45, 150-51, 161, 182-83, 196.

4. The decedent's sprint car, which he purchased new in 1975, came equipped with a Y-type shoulder harness. At the time of the accident, the car was equipped with a replacement Y-type shoulder harness which had been installed in 1977. This harness was manufactured by the defendant. The manufacturer sold its product to retailers, including Stan Hoover, Jr., Racing Enterprises ("Hoover"), from whom decedent purchased it.

5. Expert testimony at trial indicated that the stitching on this shoulder harness was grossly inferior to the stitching on other harnesses with which it was compared. Appendix at 289. It was the expert's opinion that the shoulder harness failed because the inferior stitching on the harness broke during the collision, causing the harness to come apart. The expert testified that shoulder harnesses with more stitches and stitches arranged in a different way were stronger than shoulder harnesses with stitches like those in decedent's car. In addition to the expert witness's testimony, four eyewitnesses testified that they had watched numerous sprint car races in which the cars flipped over and that they had never seen a driver, other than deceased, killed in one of these flips. Appendix at 287-89, 57, 109-10, 153-54, 207, 234-35.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

6. Barbara Ellen Barris, decedent's widow, brought this action against Bob's, the manufacturer of the shoulder harness, and Hoover, the retailer of the harness, under the Pennsylvania Survival Act, 20 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 3371-3373 (1982), and the Pennsylvania Death Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8301 (1982). Plaintiff alleged that the car's defectively designed or manufactured shoulder harness failed to restrain the decedent under normal use during the flipping episode, thereby causing him to strike the interior of the car and sustain fatal head injuries. Plaintiff relied on the strict products liability doctrine of the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A (1965), on negligence theory, and on a contract theory of warranties.

7. At the end of the plaintiff's case, the district court directed a verdict against Hoover, the retailer, because Hoover failed to file a timely answer to the plaintiff's complaint. No appeal has been taken from the verdict directed against Hoover. After the plaintiff presented her case against the other defendant, Bob's, the district court granted the defendant's motion for a directed verdict on the ground that the plaintiff had failed to present a prima facie crashworthiness case, under the test articulated in Huddell v. Levin, 537 F.2d 726 (3d Cir. 1976). Specifically, the court ruled that the plaintiff had failed to demonstrate that the death would have been prevented had a better shoulder harness design been utilized.*fn2 During the trial, the court excluded ...


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