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Habecker v. Copperloy Corp.

filed: January 8, 1990; As Corrected.

CONNIE L. HABECKER, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF JOHN R. HABECKER, DECEASED; AND JOHN MICHAEL HABECKER, MINOR, BY CONNIE L. HABECKER, HIS PARENT, NATURAL GUARDIAN AND NEXT FRIEND, APPELLANTS
v.
COPPERLOY CORPORATION; CLARK EQUIPMENT COMPANY, DEFENDANTS, AND FORKLIFTS, INC., DEFENDANT AND THIRD PARTY PLAINTIFF, V. CLARK EQUIPMENT COMPANY; R.L. JEFFRIES TRUCKING CO., INC.; DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA; AND UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, THIRD PARTY DEFENDANTS



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Civil No. 86-0352.

Becker, Cowen and Seitz, Circuit Judges.

Author: Becker

Opinion OF THE COURT

BECKER, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiffs, the widow and child of John Habecker, brought this products liability action in the district court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania based on theories of strict liability, breach of implied warranty, and negligence. Habecker, a civilian employee of the New Cumberland (PA) Army Depot (NCAD), was killed when the forklift he was backing off a ramp went off the side of the ramp and turned over. Habecker was ejected and crushed to death when the forklift fell on top of him. The forklift, manufactured in 1977 by Clark Equipment Company, was not designed with (and did not contain) any operator restraints, such as seat belts. Plaintiffs brought the present action against Clark; Forklifts, Inc., the corporation that leased and maintained the forklift; and Copperloy Corporation, the manufacturer of the ramp. Jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship, 28 U.S.C. ยง 1332, and Pennsylvania law applies.

Plaintiffs' implied warranty and negligence claims were dismissed before trial. The strict liability theories were grounded on alleged defects in both the forklift and the ramp. Plaintiffs alleged that the forklift was defective because it had a sticking throttle and because it had no operator restraints (seat belts). Plaintiffs alleged that the ramp was defective because it lacked adequate warnings as to the proper manner of its hook-up and because it did not have an overload relief valve that would cause the ramp to settle, instead of turn over, when there was too much weight on a portion of the ramp. The district court granted a directed verdict for Copperloy on both claims that the ramp was defective (thus relieving Copperloy of all liability) and a partial directed verdict for Clark and Forklifts on the throttle issue.*fn1 The jury returned a verdict for defendants Clark and Forklifts on the seat belt issue.

Plaintiffs appeal, challenging several of the district court's evidentiary determinations and its conclusions on sufficiency of evidence. We will affirm the district court's grant of a directed verdict in favor of Copperloy, and also its grant of a partial directed verdict in favor of Clark and Forklifts (on the defective throttle issue). However, we will reverse and remand for a new trial on the operator restraints issue. We do so because we conclude that the district court erred in refusing to permit Raymond Brandt, who possessed a master's degree in safety education and a doctorate in human factors and product safety design, and who had worked in the health and safety sciences for thirty-three years, to testify as an expert witness for plaintiffs about the causal relation between the lack of operator restraints and operator injury. Although Brandt did not possess an engineering degree, our jurisprudence does not permit the exclusion of a proffered expert with a background as extensive as his. And, although Brandt's testimony would have been cumulative to the testimony of another expert on the issue for which plaintiff sought to proffer his testimony, the defendants (collectively) offered three witnesses on the issue, and, under all the circumstances, we cannot say that the error was harmless.

I.

During the trial, plaintiffs produced two expert witnesses. Plaintiffs' first witness, Nicholas Miller, testified about OSHA requirements concerning seat belts for forklifts used in the construction industry. He also testified about the relationship between the lack of operator restraints and operator injury. Brandt was plaintiffs' second witness. He testified about the lack of warnings on the hook-up of the mobile yard ramp. However, as discussed, Brandt was not allowed to testify about the causal relationship between the lack of operator restraints and operator injury. We review decisions of the district court pertaining to the admission of expert testimony for abuse of discretion. Knight v. Otis Elevator Co., 596 F.2d 84, 87 (3d Cir. 1979).

A.

The principle of liberal admission of expert testimony is found in Rule 702 itself, in the advisory committee note to the rule, and in our case law. Beginning with Rule 702 itself, it provides that a witness may qualify as an expert by "knowledge, skill, experience, training or education" (emphasis added).*fn2 This principle of liberal qualification of experts can also be found in the advisory committee note to the rule, which elaborates on the meaning of "expert," explaining that the word "expert" should not be defined in a narrow sense. Its last paragraph states:

The rule is broadly phrased. The fields of knowledge which may be drawn upon are not limited merely to the "scientific" and "technical" but extend to all "specialized" knowledge. Similarly, the expert is viewed, not in a narrow sense, but as a person qualified by "knowledge, skill, experience, training or education." Thus within the scope of the rule are not only experts in the strictest sense of the word, e.g. physicians, physicists, and architects, but also the large group sometimes called "skilled" witnesses, such as bankers or landowners testifying to land values.

Fed.R.Evid. 702, advisory committee's note.

Finally, this principle of the liberal qualification of experts can also be found in the case law of the circuit. The leading case is Knight v. Otis Elevator Co., 596 F.2d 84 (3d Cir. 1979), where the plaintiff brought a products liability action asserting that she was injured when the door of a freight elevator in her employer's workplace prematurely closed and struck her. Among other defendants, she sued Otis Elevator Co., which designed, manufactured and installed the elevator. Her expert was a consulting chemist and engineer specializing in materials engineering and safety. He also had taught a course at the University of Pittsburgh engineering school, had designed safety equipment for eighteen years, and had designed button guards to prevent inadvertent activation of machinery. Plaintiff sought to have him testify that unguarded elevator control buttons constituted a design defect. Nonetheless, the district court excluded the testimony because it believed that such ...


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