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Walters v. Mintec/International

March 20, 1985


Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands Division of Saint Croix.

Seitz, Gibbons and Sloviter, Circuit Judges.

Author: Seitz

SEITZ, Circuit Judge.

Mintec/International ("Mintec") appeals from a judgment of the district court entered on a jury verdict. Appellate jurisdiction exists pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ยง 1291 (1982).


This products liability action arises out of the collapse of a loading crane designed by Mintec. In 1977, the Hess Oil Virgin Islands Corporation ("HOVIC") contracted with Mintec to purchase a sulfur loading facility for HOVIC's St. Croix refinery. Mintec was responsible for designing the facility and supervising its construction. The facility was designed to load sulfur, by means of conveyor belts, from the refinery to a dock several hundred feet away. The conveyor belts fed the sulfur to the tower of the crane which had an adjustible boom for loading the sulfur onto ships. The boom was raised or lowered by two cables passing over pulleys at the top of the tower to a hoist drum located on the platform of the crane. To raise the boom, the cables were wound around the hollow hoist drum. The drum turned on a shaft which was secured at either end by two pillow blocks. Each pillow block was held in place by two bolts.

On November 20, 1978, St. Claire Walters and Martin Massicott, two HOVIC employees, were assigned to work at the sulfur loading facility. They had just completed loading a barge when the accident in question occurred. As the boom was being lifted into its stowed upright position, the hoist drum broke loose from one of the pillow blocks, causing the boom to collapse and to crash into the tower. Walters was killed in the accident. Massicott escaped immediate physical injury, but asserted that the incident caused him severe mental anguish and emotional distress which, in turn, resulted in physical harm.

In August of 1980, a wrongful death action was brought on behalf of Walters' survivors against Mintec and the Shepard Niles Crane & Hoist Corporation ("Shepard Niles").*fn1 The latter manufactured the hoist mechanism which was incorporated into the sulfur loading facility. At about the same time, Martin Massicott brought a separate action against the same defendants, seeking damages for physical injuries resulting from emotional disturbance and for loss of earning capacity. His wife, Catherine, filed a claim for loss of consortium.

The cases brought by Walters' survivors and the Massicotts (collectively "plaintiffs") were consolidated and tried to a jury. Plaintiffs proceeded against Mintec on a theory of strict liability under section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts.*fn2 Their principal contention was that the crane was defectively designed because it should have been equipped with a four-bolt configuration to hold the hoist to the pillow block base instead of the two-bolt mechanism employed by Mintec. Mintec argued that the crane's failure was due to improper maintenance by HOVIC. It further contended that the accident was caused by the imposition of a foreign object between the gears of the hoist.

The jury found in favor of plaintiffs and awarded damages in the following amounts: $10,000 to the estate of Ethel Walters, Walters' mother; $25,000 to James Walters, Walters father;$250,000 to each of Walters' children, Royston Elmington and Vivien Ricketts; $500,000 to Martin Massicott and $150,000 to his wife, Catherine Massicott. The jury found that Shepard Niles had been negligent and apportioned 10 percent of the liability to it. See Murray v. Fairbanks Morse, 610 F.2d 149 (3d Cir. 1979) (applying Virgin Island comparative negligence statute in strict liability action). Accordingly, the district court, entering the judgment against Mintec, reduced the amount of each award by 10 percent.*fn3 Mintec moved for judgment n.o.v. or, in the alternative, for a new trial. The district court denied the motion, and Mintec appealed.


A. Jury Charge

Mintec first contends that the jury was improperly instructed on the issue of what constitutes a defective condition under section 402A of the Restatement. Specifically, it asserts error with regard to the following language:

Plaintiffs need not prove a specific defect. It is sufficient if you find from the evidence that the product in question malfunctioned, causing the accident, as a result of some mechanical failure or other propensity of the product unknown to the plaintiffs.

App. at 948. Mintec concedes that it did not object to this instruction at trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 51. Nevertheless, it asserts that the alleged error is of such grave consequence that it may be considered in the first instance on appeal. Notwithstanding a party's failure to raise its objection before the district court, an erroneous jury instruction may require a reversal if the error is plain or fundamental. See Beardshall v. Minuteman Press International, Inc., 664 F.2d 23 (3d Cir. 1981).

Mintec raises two arguments with respect to the challenged instruction. First, it contends that the instruction is misleading in that it improperly would permit the jury to find against Mintec solely because the product malfunctioned. See Ocean Barge Transport Co. v. Hess Oil Virgin Islands Corp., 726 F.2d 121 (3d Cir. 1984). However, alleged errors in jury instructions must be evaluated in light of the instructions as a whole. Ayoub v. Spencer, 550 F.2d 164 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 432 U.S. 907, 53 L. Ed. 2d 1079, 97 S. Ct. 2952 (1977). Here the district court went on to explicitly state that the jury "may not infer a defective condition . . . simply because of what occurred on [the date of the accident]." App. at 951. Even assuming, therefore, that the district court's instructions were not perfectly clear, we hold that the challenged language did not amount to fundamental error, and thus the substance of Mintec's objection will not be addressed on its merits.

Second, Mintec argues that the district court erred in not instructing the jury that plaintiffs had the burden of eliminating all other reasonable explanations for the product malfunction. See Ocean Barge Transport Co., 726 F.2d 121. Mintec contends that although the issue was not raised before the district court it is reviewable as fundamental error because it had the effect of shifting the burden of proof to Mintec. Assuming, without deciding, that an erroneous instruction as to the burden of proof would have been fundamental error, we find no error in the present case.

At the beginning of his instructions on the issue of liability the district court judge stated that in order for the plaintiffs to recover, they must establish by a preponderance of the evidence "that Mintec sold that produce [sic] in question in a defective condition which was unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer." App. at 947. The court emphasized that plaintiffs had the burden of demonstrating that the product was in a defective condition at the time that it was sold to HOVIC. Moreover, unlike the court in Ocean Barge Transport, the district court in the present case did not suggest that Mintec had the burden of proving that some other factor was responsible for the accident. We do not believe that the ...

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