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Habecker v. Clark Equipment Co.

filed: September 16, 1994.

CONNIE L. HABECKER, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF JOHN R. HABECKER, DECEASED; JOHN MICHAEL HABECKER, MINOR, BY CONNIE L. HABECKER, HIS PARENT, NATURAL GUARDIAN AND NEXT FRIEND, APPELLANTS
v.
CLARK EQUIPMENT COMPANY; FORKLIFTS, INC.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. Civil No. 86-00352).

Before: Mansmann, Nygaard and Seitz, Circuit Judges.

Author: Mansmann

Opinion OF THE COURT

MANSMANN, Circuit Judge.

We are revisiting this products liability case after a third trial on the alleged defectiveness of a forklift for its manufacturer's failure to equip it with an operator restraint system. We focus specifically on issues related to the forklift's crashworthiness under Pennsylvania law. Our task is to determine whether the district court's evidentiary rulings, permitting evidence proffered by the defendant-manufacturer pertaining to its lack of knowledge of such devices at the time of the sale, the state of the art, and the desirability of such restraints as viewed by the industry, were consistent with Pennsylvania's crashworthiness law and its public policy which underlies it.

I.

John Habecker was a civilian employee of the New Cumberland Army Depot when the forklift he was backing down a ramp tumbled from the side of the ramp. Thrown from the forklift, Habecker was tragically killed when the forklift fell on top of him. The forklift was manufactured in 1977 by Clark Equipment Company and was not designed with an operator restraint system (ORS), nor had one subsequently been installed.

Habecker's estate and family*fn1 ("Habecker") brought a products liability action in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania against Clark and Forklifts, Inc., the corporation that leased the forklift to the Army, alleging that the forklift was defective due to the lack of an ORS, for example, a seat belt.*fn2 After trial, the jury returned a verdict for the defendants.

On appeal, we reversed and remanded for a new trial on the operator restraint issue, reasoning that the district court erred in refusing to permit Raymond Brandt to testify as an expert for the plaintiffs. Habecker v. Copperloy Corp., 893 F.2d 49, 52-53 (3d Cir. 1990) (Habecker I).*fn3

In that appeal, Habecker had also argued that the district court erred by continually admitting, over objections, extensive testimony and evidence about industry standards, government regulations, and other "state of the art" matters concerning operator restraints, asserting that such evidence was inadmissible in a products liability suit governed by Pennsylvania law. We found it unnecessary to address this issue because the case had to be retried. Nonetheless, we stated: "The district court has recognized the problem, and we are confident that it will carefully limit the admissibility of such evidence on re-trial." Id. at 53.

Finally, Habecker argued that the district court, in eliminating the retrofit issue, also dismissed the issue of failure to give a post-sale warning. We expressly held that the district court only eliminated the failure-to-retrofit issue, not the failure-to-give-a-post-sale-warning issue. Id. at 54.

On retrial, the district court permitted Clark to offer evidence relating to its theory of the effectiveness of ORSs in 1977, demonstrating that the industry had been unable to determine whether ORSs reduced the risk of serious injury to the operator and that it was only later, after the development of more sophisticated computer modeling, that the industry decided it was desirable to equip forklifts with such systems. Clark argued that as of 1977 a manufacturer could not have known whether ORSs created more risks than they eliminated. Once again the jury returned a verdict for the defendants.

On appeal, in Habecker v. Clark Equipment Co., 942 F.2d 210 (3d Cir. 1991) (Habecker II), we distinguished evidence of what safety measures were feasible at the time a product was designed and evidence of what safety measures were known to be desirable at that time. Noting that this case was one of crashworthiness, we held that "liability is imposed on a manufacturer in a case for a design defect because an alternative, feasible, safer design would have lessened or eliminated the injury plaintiff suffered." Id. at 215. We concluded that:

"if no such alternative feasible design existed when the product was manufactured, then the design cannot be said to be 'defective,' even if more recent technology has rendered a safer design feasible. Therefore, the factfinder can only determine whether a particular design was defective after hearing evidence about what designs were feasible at the time the product was manufactured and whether they were in fact safer."

Id. We excluded, consistent with Pennsylvania law, any evidence of what was or was not known about the desirability of ORSs in 1977.

The only question for the jury was whether an operator restraint system is an "element necessary to make [a forklift] safe for its intended use," Azzarello, 391 A.2d 1027, a question that is to be answered on the basis of all the knowledge available at the time of trial. Evidence about what Clark knew or could have known about the desirability of operator restraint systems at the time of manufacture is not relevant to that question.

Id. at 216. We found that there was a substantial possibility that the inadmissible evidence influenced the jury's determination, focusing its attention on Clark's behavior and decision-making rather than on the product's defectiveness.

Finally, we held that the district court took a narrow view of its own authority on remand. While the parties were preparing for the second trial, the district court issued an order stating that pursuant to our opinion in Habecker I, the only issue for re-trial was whether the forklift was defective when it left Clark, the manufacturer, in 1977. The district court held that the parties would be confined to presenting evidence only through the witnesses listed in their original pre-trial memorandum. The order prevented Habecker from further discovery and from raising new theories of liability. We stated that it was not our intention to so restrain the second trial, and although we expressed no view on the direction the district court should take, we held only that the decisions on whether to allow new claims, whether to permit further discovery, and whether to hear additional evidence were all within the district court's discretion.

On remand for the third trial, but prior to it, Habecker filed a motion to exclude all state of the art evidence as well as letters and studies purporting to show the dangers of ORSs in forklift turnovers. There was extensive Discussion on this issue in chambers at the pretrial conference on January 29, 1993. Clark argued that Habecker II permitted evidence of feasibility in a crashworthiness case, i.e., that if Habecker offered the 1983 ORS as an "alternative, safer design, practicable under the circumstances," Habecker II at 214; see also Kupetz at ____, then defense evidence of its feasibility in 1977 would become relevant. The district court granted Habecker's motion, but in consideration thereof, limited Habecker to general evidence about ORSs -- excluding any evidence about the 1983 ORS. 631A.

Further, the district court permitted, over strenuous and continuous objections, defense testimony about user letters and concerns pertaining to ORSs, engineering concerns, and concerns of various corporations, committees and societies, all of which impact the knowledge available to Clark regarding the ORSs' desirability. The jury returned a defense verdict, and Habecker now appeals once more.

II ...


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