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Pacheco v. Coats Co.

filed: June 6, 1994.

HECTOR PACHECO; MARIA PACHECO, APPELLEES
v.
THE COATS COMPANY, INC.; HENNESSY INDUSTRIES, INC., APPELLANTS



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. Civil No. 89-08115).

Before: Mansmann, Lewis and Seitz, Circuit Judges.

Author: Mansmann

Opinion OF THE COURT

MANSMANN, Circuit Judge.

Hector Pacheco was severely and permanently injured when the tire he was removing or about to remove from a Coats 40-40 tire changer exploded and launched from the tire changer table top, striking his left elbow with such kinetic force as to irreparably shatter his elbow. Pacheco and his wife, Maria, brought a diversity products liability action against the Coats Company and Hennessy Industries on the theory that the "launch-pad effect" which caused his injury constitutes a design defect which renders the Coats tire changer unsafe for its intended use. The alleged defect centers on the condition of the changer table top to act as a thrust surface, not unlike any other table top or flat surface. The Pachecos do not assert a defect in any active phase of the machine's function, or that the machine itself caused the tire to rupture.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Pachecos for $325,000. The defendants appeal from a denial of their motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, now known as judgment as a matter of law. We must decide whether there is substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict on the questions of product defect and proximate causation.

I.

Hector Pacheco, a 42-year-old self-employed automobile mechanic, had just completed a tire change using a Coats 40-40 tire changer and was about to lift the tire from the surface of the machine, when the tire suddenly and violently exploded. The tire and tire rim were thrust from the surface of the tire changer and one or both of them apparently struck Mr. Pacheco's left elbow, causing the total irreparable disintegration of the elbow bone. Pacheco has undergone several surgical procedures, including an elbow transplant and ultimately a replacement of the natural bone joint with a prosthesis, which may require future revision, and suffers a loss of arm function as well as the loss of his employment capacity as a mechanic. The manufacturers of the tire and tire rim have not been identified. The Pachecos commenced a strict product liability action against the manufacturers of the Coats 40-40 tire changer, i.e., the Coats Company and Hennessy Industries ("Coats").*fn1

The overwhelming evidence at trial converged to establish that the tire explosion caused Mr. Pacheco's injury, although some controversy centered on the exact positioning of Mr. Pacheco's arms at the time of the explosion, and whether the injury was necessarily the result of contact with the trajectile. The evidence further tended to prove to a high degree of certainty that the explosion resulted from a tire bead failure which occurred after the completion of the tire changing process. Thus the parties agreed that a defective tire, and not the Coats 40-40, caused the explosion which injured Mr. Pacheco. Mr. Pacheco's theory of defective design product liability, however, is based on evidence that the table top of the Coats 40-40 served virtually as a "launching pad" against which the ruptured tire bead reacted, resulting in the intensely powerful thrust of exploding tire material. Moreover, substantial evidence showed that at the time of Mr. Pacheco's accident, this type of scenario was foreseeable, that Coats was long aware of the serious risk of bodily harm associated with working with compressed air and the tire inflation process, that such risk could have been significantly reduced through feasible product design modifications, and that Coats failed to "design out" the product defect.

At trial it was shown that in past years Coats' engineers had conducted a number of tests which examined the "launch effect" of exploding tires reacting to its tire changer table top. In particular, the "Strang test," named after the engineer who carried it out in 1966, concluded that the shape of the machine's table surface affects its potential to serve as a "launching pad" when a tire resting on it explodes. Although the Coats employee charged with overseeing safety programs for the company testified that this test was incomplete, conducted solely for the purpose of drafting warning labels and operating instructions, was inconclusive as to design implications, and was superseded by subsequent studies undertaken by Coats, the weight of the evidence clearly established that, from the 1960s, Coats was aware of the phenomenon of ruptured tire beads striking the table top and launching upwards. The evidence further showed that other tests carried out by Coats' employees, including the "Gottsholl test" in the 1970s and the "MacInnelli test" of 1987, studied the height that a tire was lifted off a platform when it exploded, and demonstrated that elevating the tire above the platform minimizes an exploding tire's upward thrust.

Mr. Pacheco's attorney argued from the findings of Coats' own studies that a reduction in the launch pad effect through a redesign of the tire changer would be feasible. Dr. Alan Milner, a professional engineer and consultant with a special expertise in the area of tires and tire explosions, testified on behalf of Mr. Pacheco that modifications to the Coats 40-40 model could reduce the kinetic energy of an explosion by 98%. He proposed a hypothetical redesign whereby the table surface of the tire changer would be reduced to the size of the tire rim and elevated 6-1/2" from any surrounding surface so as to dissipate the energy emitted from an explosion. As a theoretical matter, this would reduce the upward thrust of an exploding tire to a mere fraction of what it would be if the tire bead were in contact with the table top at the time of explosion. Mr. Pacheco's attending physician, as well as an accident reconstructionist and biomedical engineer, testified that a substantial reduction in the upward thrust of an exploding tire would have reduced Mr. Pacheco's injury.

Coats' safety program overseer countered that as a practical matter, the effects of a thrust surface cannot be reduced by diminishing the size of the thrust surface, and that a reduction in the launch effect can only be achieved if the launch surface is eliminated. Because he thought it was not possible to design a tire changer without a table top, or so impracticable as to make it virtually impossible, he testified that the proposed hypothetical redesign would not be practically feasible. Coats' witness discredited the proposed redesign as being merely conceptual and lacking the scrutiny of the various engineering disciplines required to complete a product design. He further asserted that the proposed redesign would create a false sense of security and would itself create new ergonomic problems while not eliminating either the risk of tire explosion or the risk of serious injury from such explosion.

Mr. Pacheco testified that he was aware of the potential danger of the tire explosion, and that he was also aware of the warning labels placed by Coats on the tire changer. The parties agreed that an exploding tire would react identically whether it exploded off of the table top of the Coats 40-40 or off of virtually any other flat surface, such as a floor. The parties agreed that the Coats 40-40 did not cause the explosion. The pivotal factual dispute at trial concerned whether the flat table top of the Coats 40-40 constitutes a defective design, whether a redesign would have been feasible, and whether the failure to implement a redesign was a substantial cause of Mr. Pacheco's injury.*fn2

The jury returned a verdict in favor of Mr. Pacheco on the issues of whether the tire changer was defective and whether the defect was a proximate cause of Mr. Pacheco's injuries. In accordance with the jury's responses to the special interrogatories, the district court entered judgment in favor of Mr. Pacheco in the amount of $300,000, and in favor of Mrs. Pacheco in the amount of $25,000 on her claim for loss of consortium. The Coats Company and Hennessy Industries timely moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or alternatively, for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. They withdrew their Rule 59 motion; the district court denied their Rule 50 motion in an order dated July 20, 1993. Notwithstanding its acknowledgement that the trial produced conflicting evidence as to whether the Coats 40-40 was defective in design, the court found substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict as to all the issues. The Coats Company and Hennessy Industries timely appealed the district court's final order.

Reviewing the record in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, we must ascertain de novo whether the record contains sufficient evidence to sustain the jury's verdict. See, e.g., Chuy v. Philadelphia Eagles Football Club, 595 F.2d 1265, 1273 (3d Cir. 1979) (in banc).

II.

Mr. Pacheco's personal injury case was brought under the laws of Pennsylvania for defective products. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has adopted § 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts*fn3 to govern strict product liability claims. Webb v. Zern, 422 Pa. 424, 220 A.2d 853, 854 (Pa. 1966). ...


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