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Clevenger v. CNH America

June 9, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Sylvia H. Rambo


Before the court is a motion for new trial made by Plaintiffs John and Carol Clevenger. They filed suit against Defendant CNH America, LLC (referred to as "Case"), for strict products liability. They alleged that the Case 85XT skid steer loader was defectively designed because a safety interlock system failed to prevent the machine from injuring Mr. Clevenger as he exited its cab. The jury, after a fourday trial, found that the design of the 85XT was not defective. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs' motion for new trial will be denied.

I. Background

A. Facts

The parties being familiar with the details of this case, the court sets forth only those facts necessary to address this motion. On February 25, 2005, Mr. Clevenger was working on his farm. He decided to clear recently fallen snow from the area around his driveway and barn. He climbed into his Case 85XT skid steer loader to use it as a snow plow.

A skid steer loader is a compact, maneuverable machine for use on a farm. It has a cab containing a seat for the operator. It has arms on either side of the cab that hold a plow-type bucket in front of the cab. Because the lift arms are placed directly next to the cab, the operator must enter and exit the 85XT from the front of the cab, climbing over the bucket. The arms and bucket move in response to two hand-control levers. The arms are raised and lowered by moving the left hand control lever to the right or left. The tilt of the bucket is governed by the right hand control lever. The controls on the 85XT are designed to automatically spring back to neutral once pressure upon them is released. The operator must move between the controls when entering and exiting the cab.

The seat within the cab has a lap bar that can be raised and lowered. After sitting down, the operator pulls the lap bar down. Once the lap bar is down and the engine is turned on, the hand controls become operational. When the operator decides to get out of the 85XT, the operator's manual instructs that one should turn off the engine before exiting the machine. There is also a label on the inside of the cab which has four bullet points of instructions to follow before leaving the cab. Those instructions are to 1) lower the lift arm or engage the lift lock; 2) shut off the engine; 3) raise the seat bar; and 4) move the loader controls until locked. (Trial Tr. vol. 2, 75-77, Jan. 7, 2008.) By raising the seat bar and ensuring the controls are in neutral, according to Defendant, the operator ensures that the safety interlock mechanism is in place and the lift arms will not rise. If the controls are shifted off-center before the seat bar is raised, however, raising the seat bar alone will not lock them out. They will continue to be operational until they are permitted to return to neutral, at which point they will be locked out and will not move until the seat bar is lowered again.

Mr. Clevenger had been plowing for a short time when he felt the need to use the bathroom. He raised the lap bar. He did not turn off the engine. He did not move the controls to ensure that they were in neutral and locked. He opened the cab door and pushed it outward. As he climbed over the controls and out the door, the lift arms of the 85XT began to rise. The arms made contact with the bottom of the door and twisted the door behind Mr. Clevenger, trapping his left arm between the top of the door and the roof of the cab. It squeezed so tightly that he could not free himself. After he yelled for help for some time, Mr. Clevenger's family found him and managed to free him. They bound his arm with a tourniquet before he was air lifted to the hospital.

The pressure severed much of Mr. Clevenger's left triceps from his arm. An attempt to restore strength to the triceps area via a muscle graft from his back was unsuccessful. He does not have much use of his left arm.

Plaintiffs' theory of the case was that the 85XT was defectively designed. Slight pressure on the left hand control would not cause the lift arms to rise, but it would prevent the control from locking. The seat bar could be raised and then, by shifting to higher throttle, the lift arms would move, on occasion, without added pressure on the control. (Trial Tr. vol. 3, 58, Jan. 8, 2008.) Further, when the control is only slightly deflected, there is very little spring pressure to bring the control back to center. (Id. at 30.) Plaintiffs argued that the interlock should have operated to disallow movement of the arms of the 85XT as soon as the operator either raised the seat bar or stood up from the seat in the cab. In the alternative, or additionally, Case should have added a light or a buzzer that would sound to inform the operator that the interlock system either was or was not engaged.

Defendant submitted that the 85XT was not defectively designed. Instead, before Mr. Clevenger raised the seat bar, his left leg prevented the left hand control from centering and locking out. He failed to turn off the engine and to check the controls to ensure that they were locked. He maintained pressure on the left hand control and, as he was getting out of the machine, his body pushed the lever further, which caused the arms to rise. Once his body released the pressure on the lever, it sprang back to center and locked out. The arms stopped rising.

B. Procedural History

Plaintiffs commenced suit on May 17, 2006. (Doc. 1.) They amended their complaint on June 13, 2006. (Doc. 5.) After Defendant's motion for summary judgment was denied on December 6, 2007 (Doc. 58), the case proceeded to trial. A jury trial was held on January 4 and 7-9, 2008. The jury returned a verdict for Defendant. Plaintiffs timely filed the instant motion for new trial. (Doc. 108.) Briefing is complete and the motion is ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standard-Motion for New Trial

A motion for a new trial is governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. Under this rule, in the case of a jury trial, "[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues-and to any party- . . . for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A). "Unless justice requires otherwise, no error in admitting or excluding evidence-or any other error by the court or a party-is ground for granting a new trial . . . . At every stage of the proceeding, the court must disregard all errors and defects that do not affect any party's substantial rights." Fed. R. Civ. P. 61. Thus, the inquiry is two-fold: 1) whether there was trial error and 2) whether the error affected a party's substantial rights. See Bhaya v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 709 F. Supp. 600, 601 (E.D. Pa. 1989). When a motion for a new trial is based on a prejudicial error of law, the court has broad discretion to order a new trial. Klein v. Hollings, 992 F.2d 1285, 1289-90 (3d Cir. 1993).

III. Discussion

Plaintiffs claim numerous errors in the court's interpretation and application of Pennsylvania law of strict products liability. The jury reached only the threshold question on the verdict form and found that the 85XT was not defective as designed. (See Doc. 99). Thus, the court will address Plaintiffs' errors assigned to that topic only.*fn1 The discussion begins by setting forth the substantive law governing this case ...

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