Appeals from the Judgment of the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County, Civil Division, at No. 12753-1995, SUR NO. 3543-A-1989. Before CONNELLY, J.
Appeal from the Judgment entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County, Civil Division, No. 12753-1995, SUR NO. 3543-A-1989.
Appeal from the Judgment Entered September 1, 1995, in the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County, Civil, No. 12753-1995 Sur No. 3543-A-1989.
Before: McEWEN, P.j., Cavanaugh, Del Sole, Beck, Tamilia, Kelly, Hudock, Eakin and Schiller, JJ. Opinion BY Hudock, J. McEWEN, P.j. filed a Dissenting Statement in which Del Sole, J. joined. Tamilia, J. filed a Concurring and Dissenting Statement.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hudock
This case calls upon our Court to clarify the circumstances under which a trial court may, rather than awarding a new trial, mold a verdict to reflect the jury's intent. After careful deliberation, we hold that in cases in which liability is free from doubt and the jury's intent may be clearly discerned from the verdict, a trial court may, at its discretion, mold the verdict.
On August 24, 1987, while working as a rustproofer for Pro-Tech, Inc., Scott Mendralla was severely injured when a vehicle under which he was working fell from a hydraulic lift. As a consequence of this accident, Mr. Mendralla and his wife, Laura, commenced the instant action by filing a praecipe for a writ of summons in the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County. At that time, ten defendants were named as possible manufacturers and/or distributors of the lift.
After conducting an extensive pretrial investigation into the identity of the lift's manufacturer, the case proceeded to trial against only one defendant, Weaver Corporation (Weaver). Prior to trial, Weaver signed a stipulation that it was the successor-in-interest to the manufacturer of the lift. Mr. Mendralla's case was premised upon strict product liability, while Mrs. Mendralla's claim averred loss of consortium.
At the close of testimony, but before the jury was charged, the Mendrallas presented the court with a proposed itemized verdict slip. Included as a possible category of damages, should the jury find Weaver liable, was an award for future medical expenses. Asserting that insufficient evidence was proffered at trial relative to the amount of Mr. Mendralla's future medical expenses, Weaver objected to both the proposed jury charge and verdict slip. The court, however, overruled Weaver's objection, charged the jury on future medical expenses and submitted the Mendrallas' verdict slip to the jury.
Following deliberations, the jury returned its verdict in which it found that, at the time it was sold, the lift was in a defective condition and was unsafe for its intended use. Weaver was, therefore, found liable in the gross amount of $125,000.00, $50,000.00 of which was awarded to Mr. Mendralla for his future medical expenses. No award was given to Mrs. Mendralla for her loss of consortium claim.
Asserting, inter alia, that the trial court erred in permitting the jury to consider Mr. Mendralla's future medical expenses as part of its damage award, Weaver filed a timely post-verdict motion. Therein, Weaver reiterated its prior argument that insufficient evidence was adduced at trial to prove Mr. Mendralla's future medical expenses with specificity. As a result, Weaver claimed, the damages awarded by the jury were speculative. Additionally, requesting a new trial or judgment notwithstanding the verdict, Weaver argued that the totality of evidence presented at trial was insufficient to prove liability. Mr. Mendralla, in turn, filed a post-trial motion for delay damages.
By order dated August 15, 1995, the trial court denied Weaver's motion for a new trial or judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The court, however, agreed with Weaver that the issue of future medical expenses was improperly submitted to the jury and, thus, reduced the aggregate damage award by $50,000.00. Mr. Mendralla's motion for delay damages was granted as well and, on September 1, 1995, judgment was entered against Weaver in the aggregate amount of $105,717.14.
On September 13, 1995, Weaver filed a timely notice of appeal to this Court claiming, again, that the evidence was insufficient to sustain the jury's verdict. In support of its claim, Weaver stated, inter alia, that it did not sell the defective lift but was, instead, the successor corporation to the actual manufacturer/distributor. Therefore, Weaver argued, because it did not actually sell the lift and because the Mendrallas did not plead successor liability in their complaint, it could not be found liable.
On September 22, 1995, the Mendrallas filed a cross-appeal claiming that the trial court erred in reducing the damage award by the amount allocated for Mr. Mendralla's future medical expenses. Rather, the Mendrallas' claimed, the trial court should have awarded a new trial.
Prior to addressing the Mendrallas' claim as to whether the trial court fashioned the appropriate post-verdict remedy, we will review Weaver's averment that the evidence introduced at trial was insufficient to establish liability because it did not actually sell the lift to Mr. Mendralla's employer. *fn1 In so doing, we must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the Mendrallas, as verdict winners, and determine whether sufficient evidence was proffered at trial to prove that Weaver is strictly liable for Mr. Mendralla's injuries.
As a general rule, a successor corporation does not acquire the liabilities and/or debts of its predecessor. See, e.g., Leffler v. Hutter, 696 A.2d 157, 167 (Pa. Super. 1997). As with all generalities, however, there are exceptions to this rule which, if present, will result in a successor corporation being held liable for its predecessor's liabilities. Id.
One such exception provides that liability will transfer to a successor corporation which has either expressly or impliedly agreed to assume its predecessor's liabilities. Id. Additionally, with respect to tort claims sounding in strict liability, a successor corporation will be responsible for its predecessor's liabilities if the successor undertakes to conduct the same manufacturing operations as the predecessor's product line. Id. "The successor is then strictly liable for injuries caused by defects in the product line, even if previously manufactured and distributed by the transferor." Childers v. Power Line Equipment Rentals, 452 Pa. Super. 94, 681 A.2d 201, 212 (Pa. Super. 1997) (quoting Simmers v. American Cyanamid Corporation, 394 Pa. Super. 464, , 576 A.2d 376, 386 (1990)).
As previously related, prior to trial Weaver signed a stipulation that it was the successor-in-interest to the manufacturer of the automotive lift which fell upon Mr. Mendralla. The lift was originally manufactured by Paris Acquisition Corporation (Paris) which, in August of 1982, sold the lift to Mr. Mendralla's employer.
In June of 1983, Paris merged with Weaver Corporation (Weaver (Michigan)). As a result of this merger, Weaver (Michigan) succeeded to all of Paris' liabilities. Specifically, Weaver (Michigan) assumed responsibility for any product liability attributable to the design, manufacture, marketing, distribution or sale of Paris' lifts. Thereafter, Weaver (Michigan) merged with Weaver (Delaware) which, again, specifically assumed Weaver (Michigan)'s liabilities. Both Weaver (Michigan), prior to the merger, and Weaver (Delaware) conducted business from the same Paris, Kentucky, plant where Paris originally operated. Additionally, both Weaver corporations undertook essentially the same product line manufacturing as Paris, their predecessor corporation. The Weaver Corporation involved in the instant litigation is Weaver (Delaware).
At trial, the Mendrallas' expert witness, Kenneth Fisher, testified that, in his opinion, there were three defects in the lift. Two of these defects, unrestricted arm rotation and excessive swivel pad tilt, related to the lift's design. The third defect identified by Mr. Fisher was the failure to adequately warn of the lift's dangerous characteristics and the hazards they presented. Moreover, the Mendrallas presented evidence that, due to similar past accidents, Weaver changed the lift's design prior to Mr. Mendralla' s accident but failed to take additional necessary precautions such as sending prior purchasers retrofit kits. *fn2
As a whole, we find that this evidence amply supports the jury's determination that, as the admitted successor-in-interest to the lift's manufacturer, Weaver was strictly liable for the injuries sustained by Mr. Mendralla. We note as well that, in addition to the applicability of the product-line exception to the general rule proscribing a successor corporation's liability, Weaver expressly assumed Paris' liabilities. Thus, Weaver could be found liable on this basis independently. See Leffler, supra. As such, the jury's liability verdict was entirely proper and Weaver's sufficiency argument must fail. *fn3
We now turn to the Mendrallas' argument that the trial court erred in molding the jury verdict rather than granting a new trial. To begin, we note that the decision whether to grant a new trial, in whole or in part, rests in the sound discretion of the trial court. See, e.g., Nogowski v. Alemo-Hammad, 456 Pa. Super. 750, 691 A.2d 950, 954 (Pa. Super. 1997) (en banc). Absent a finding that the court either abused its discretion or committed an error of law, this Court will defer to the decision of the trial court. Id.
As previously stated, the trial court in the instant matter permitted the jury to consider whether Mr. Mendralla was entitled to recover expenses for his future medical services. This determination was, however, in error.
It is well-settled that "an item of damage claimed by a plaintiff can properly be submitted to the jury only where the burden of establishing damages by proper testimony has been met." Cohen v. Albert Einstein Medical Center, 405 Pa. Super. 392, , 592 A.2d 720, 729 (1991). In the context of a claim for future medical expenses, the movant must prove, by expert testimony, not only that future medical expenses will be incurred, but also the reasonable estimated cost of such services. Id. See also, Berman v. Philadelphia Board of Education, 310 Pa. Super. 153, , 456 A.2d 545, 550-51 (1983) . Because the estimated cost of future medical services is not within the layperson's general knowledge, the requirement of such testimony eliminates the prospect that the jury's award will be speculative. Cohen, 405 Pa. Super. at , 592 A.2d at 729.
As applied to the instant matter, it is plain that the Mendrallas failed to sustain their burden of proof at trial and, therefore, that the jury should not have been permitted to award damages for Mr. Mendralla's future medical expenses. At trial, two physicians and a dentist testified that Mr. Mendralla suffered permanent injury as a result of the accident and that, in all likelihood, future procedures and reconstructive surgeries would be needed. There was, however, no testimony as to the estimated or actual cost of these anticipated medical services. In the absence of expert testimony as to the reasonable amount of Mr. Mendralla's future medical expenses, it was error for the court to permit the issue to be submitted to the jury. See, e.g., Cohen, Berman, (supra) .
Having determined, as did the trial court, that the jury should not have been permitted to award damages for Mr. Mendralla's future medical expenses, we must now consider whether the court fashioned an appropriate remedy. As stated, the trial court denied Weaver's request for a new trial, opting instead to mold the ...