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Barker v. Deere and Co.

filed: July 24, 1995.

DAVID C. BARKER AND CHRISTINA L. BARKER, HUSBAND/WIFE,
v.
DEERE AND COMPANY, APPELLANT



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. No. 91-cv-01383).

Before: Cowen, Lewis and Sarokin, Circuit Judges.

Author: Cowen

COWEN, Circuit Judge.

In this appeal of a personal injury action arising out of injuries caused by an allegedly defective tractor, we are asked to decide whether the district court erred: (1) in allowing plaintiffs to introduce evidence concerning a history of tractor rollovers when the accident at issue did not involve a tractor rollover, and (2) in denying defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law and allowing plaintiff's strict liability case to reach the jury. We conclude that the district court did not err in denying the defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law and in allowing this case to proceed to the jury. However, because the district court did err in admitting irrelevant evidence and because that evidentiary error was not harmless, we will vacate the judgment of the district court and remand to the district court for retrial.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On September 21, 1989, plaintiff David Barker ("Barker")*fn1 was operating his John Deere Model 620 ("Deere 620") tractor while working on his farm in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. He was using the tractor to tow several large logs from a lower field to his farmhouse to be split and chopped for firewood. He hauled the logs by backing the tractor up to the log, securing the log to the tractor using a 15 foot chain which was attached to the tractor's drawbar, and then putting the tractor in forward gear to drag the log. Barker completed several successful trips, and then backed the tractor to a log that was 16 to 18 inches in diameter and 20 feet long. After his stepfather hooked the log, Barker turned forward, and began to tow the log. At this point, the front end of the log became stuck in the ground, causing the rear end of the log to rise in the air and flip over in a pole-vault type fashion, striking Barker from behind on his left shoulder. Barker was ejected from his seat and thrown to the ground where he was then run over by the tractor. As a result of the accident, he suffered serious injuries including broken ribs, punctured lungs, a broken leg, and injuries to his back and shoulder.

Barker filed a complaint on August 19, 1991, and thereafter an amended complaint in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against Deere and Company ("Deere"). He alleged inter alia, that the Deere 620 tractor*fn2 was defective because at the time of manufacture it lacked an operator protective system ("OPS") to protect him from objects which intruded into the operator area, and because Deere later failed to retrofit the tractor with such a system.*fn3 App. at 43-44. The case was tried before a jury. At the close of Barker's case and again at the close of all the evidence, Deere moved pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for judgment as a matter of law, relying on Azzarello v. Black Bros. Co., 480 Pa. 547, 391 A.2d 1020 (1978), and Fitzpatrick v. Madonna, 424 Pa. Super. 473, 623 A.2d 322 (1993). These cases explain that the trial Judge is initially responsible for determining whether a strict products liability case should be submitted to the jury. The district court denied Deere's motion on both occasions.

The jury concluded that the Deere 620 tractor was defective and that the defect was a substantial factor in causing Barker's injuries. It returned an award of damages in the amount of $317,753.00 to David Barker but awarded no damages to Christina Barker for loss of consortium. After the verdict was entered, Deere filed a motion for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law. The district court denied both motions. Deere appeals that order, arguing that the district court made several errors in ruling on the admissibility of evidence, and further arguing that this strict products liability case should not have been submitted to the jury.

II. JURISDICTION

The district court had jurisdiction to entertain this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (diversity jurisdiction). We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, which confers jurisdiction upon all final orders of the district courts.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

We ordinarily review a trial court's decision concerning the admissibility of evidence under an abuse of discretion standard. Glass v. Philadelphia Electric Co., 34 F.3d 188, 191 (3d Cir. 1994) (citing In re Japanese Electronic Products, 723 F.2d 238, 260 (3d Cir. 1983), rev'd on other grounds, Matsushita Electronic Industrial Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986)). Likewise, "we review the district court's decision to include or exclude evidence arising under the Federal Rules of Evidence 401, 402 and 403 for an abuse of discretion." Id. (citing Pfeiffer v. Marion Center Area Sch. Dist., 917 F.2d 779, 781-82 (3d Cir. 1990)). However, when this court reviews a ruling on the admissibility of evidence which turns on an interpretation of a Federal Rule of Evidence, our review is plenary. In Re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litigation, 35 F.3d 717, 749 (3d Cir. 1994) (citing DeLuca v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 911 F.2d 941, 944 (3d Cir. 1990)).

The question of whether a strict products liability case in Pennsylvania should be submitted to the jury is a question of law. Fitzpatrick, 424 Pa. Super. at 475, 623 A.2d at 324 (citing Azzarello, 480 Pa. at 558, 391 A.2d at 1026); see also Nowak v. Faberge USA, Inc., 32 F.3d 755, 757 (3d Cir. 1994) (noting that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has explicitly held the ...


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