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Roe v. Deere and Co.

argued: May 2, 1988.

ROE, DENISE B., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF GORDON A. ROE, DECEASED, APPELLANT
v.
DEERE AND COMPANY, INC.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania (Scranton), D.C. Civil No. 86-1148.

Gibbons, Chief Judge, and Mansmann and Cowen, Circuit Judges.

Author: Mansmann

Opinion OF THE COURT

MANSMANN, Circuit Judge.

In this appeal we review the conduct of a products liability trial. At issue was the design of an agricultural tractor and whether the fatal injuries sustained by its operator would have occurred if the tractor had been equipped with a particular safety feature. Of Particular concern to us is the plaintiff's attempt to present a theory of liability based upon the lack of crashworthiness of the tractor.

The crucial inquiry is whether the district court erred in refusing to charge the jury that crashworthiness of the tractor was to be considered in this case. We find, contrary to the district court, that the concept of Crashworthiness was one, if not the Premiere, premise of liability from the inception and throughout the duration of this action. We conclude that it was incumbent upon the district court to instruct the jury that the tractor could be defective if it caused injuries to be exacerbated due to its lack of crashworthiness. The court's failure to so instruct compels us to vacate the judgment in favor of the defendant and remand the matter to the district court for a new trial.

I.

Denise Roe, individually and as executrix of the estate of Gordon Roe, instituted this diversity action, governed by Pennsylvania law, in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. In her complaint, Mrs. Roe alleged that a tractor, manufactured by defendant, Deere and Company, was defective and caused her husband to sustain grave and serious injuries leading to his death on May 19, 1986. The defect alleged by plaintiff was the absence of a rollover protection structure (ROPS), a seatbelt and rollbar intended to keep the operator within a protected space. It was not disputed that the ROPS was an available feature and could have been implemented as a part of the design of this tractor.

The facts leading to the eventual fatal injuries are as follows. On May 17, 1986, Gordon Roe was operating a John Deere agricultural tractor with an attached rotary motor. The tractor apparently struck a large rock protruding from the ground, causing it to roll over down a slope. Gordon either fell or was thrown from the tractor and was pinned under its right rear wheel. There were no witnesses to the accident.

After several hours, Gordon was discovered by a neighbor who summoned medical assistance. Gordon was extracted from underneath the tractor and was transported by helicopter to a hospital where he died two days later as a result of the injuries.

Trial of the case was bifurcated as to the issues of liability and damages. After three days of testimony on the strict liability issue, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant. Specifically, in response to a special interrogatory, the jury found that the farm tractor was not defective when it left Deere's control.

Mrs. Roe filed a motion for new trial raising numerous claims of error. The district court addressed the assignments of error and concluded that the evidence Presented strongly supported the jury's verdict. Mrs. Roe appealed from the denial of a motion for a new trial. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ยง 1291.

We review the denial of a motion for a new trial for legal error, including alleged abuse of discretion. Since our Primary focus here concerns the failure to instruct the jury on a particular theory of liability, our scope of review of the jury instructions given is governed by the abuse of discretion standard. We must determine whether the charge, taken as a whole and viewed in light of the evidence, fairly and adequately submitted the issues in the case to ...


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