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Foster v. National Fuel Gas Company

January 21, 2003

THERESA C. FOSTER
v.
NATIONAL FUEL GAS COMPANY, A CORPORATION; SMITH INDUSTRIES INC., A CORPORATION; COLUMBIA GAS TRANSMISSION CORPORATION, A CORPORATION; AMERICAN METER COMPANY, A CORPORATION; DRESSER INDUSTRIES INC., A CORPORATION; ECLIPSE INC.; EQUIMETER, INC., A CORPORATION
NATIONAL FUEL GAS COMPANY, THIRD PARTY PLAINTIFF
v.
SMITH INDUSTRIES, INC.; FREDERICK LOGAN COMPANY, INC.; AMERICAN METER COMPANY; EQUIMETER, INC., THIRD PARTY DEFENDANTS EQUIMETER, INC., APPELLANT



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. Civil Action No. 96-cv-00014E). District Judge: Honorable Sean J. McLaughlin. Affirmed.

Barry and Ambro, Circuit Judges Ackerman, *fn1 District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambro, Circuit Judge.

As amended January 27, 2003

Submitted November 20, 2002

OPINION OF THE COURT

In this contributory liability lawsuit, third-party defendant Equimeter Inc. seeks to appeal the District Court's denials of its three motions for judgment as a matter of law, each raising the same issue, made after third-party plaintiff National Fuel Gas, Inc.'s case-in-chief and immediately before and after the case went to the jury. We do not, however, review whether the District Court should have granted the first or second motions, but instead consider only whether the Court correctly denied the third. Doing so, we agree with the District Court's determination that by the end of the trial sufficient evidence supported the jury's verdict. Rejecting several additional arguments made by Equimeter, we affirm.

BACKGROUND

Theresa C. Foster brought this lawsuit against National Fuel seeking personal injury and property damages allegedly sustained as the result of a natural gas explosion at her home. Excessive pressure on a gas line at a regulation station owned by National Fuel caused the explosion.

National Fuel filed a third-party complaint against Equimeter, Inc., which supplied a safety relief valve for National Fuel's regulation station, for contribution in the event National Fuel was liable to Foster. Equimeter, in turn, filed a cross-claim for contribution against American Meter Company, which had provided three pressure regulators for the regulation station. *fn2

Before trial, National Fuel and Foster settled her claim for approximately $1,070,000. National Fuel and Equimeter did not, however, reach a settlement as to National Fuel's contribution claim. Nor did Equimeter and American Meter settle the contribution claim between them. Accordingly, the contribution claims among National Fuel, Equimeter, and American Meter went to trial.

National Fuel brought its claim against Equimeter pursuant to the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 8321-27, which provides for contribution to a joint tortfeasor (in this case, National Fuel) that settled with the injured party and extinguished the liability of another joint tortfeasor (here, Equimeter). See Slaughter v. Pennsylvania X-Ray Corp., 638 F.2d 639, 642 (3d Cir. 1981) (citing § 8324(c)). Under the Act, "if the payor [National Fuel] is not a tortfeasor, [its] payment would be that of a volunteer and would not support a claim for contribution." Id.; see also §§ 8322, 8324(c). Thus, in order to recover from Equimeter, National Fuel had to prove that it acted negligently to Foster's detriment.

After National Fuel presented its case-in-chief, Equimeter moved for judgment as a matter of law on the ground that National Fuel had not presented sufficient evidence from which the jury could reasonably infer that National Fuel was in any way liable for the explosion. The District Court denied the motion because the jury could reasonably draw this inference. The Court also told counsel that it intended to instruct the jury to find that National Fuel acted as a joint tortfeasor.

In its case-in-chief, Equimeter argued that National Fuel, not Equimeter, was responsible for the explosion. Equimeter put on evidence that National Fuel had, among other things, made design errors in the placement of Foster's house meter, which allowed the gas to enter the house from underneath it, and had failed to use telemetry to monitor the gas. Also, a National Fuel employee, in that company's rebuttal to Equimeter's evidence at trial, testified that National Fuel had some liability for the accident.

Before the case went to the jury, Equimeter again moved on the same ground for judgment as a matter of law, which the District Court denied. As it had said it would do, the District Court instructed the jury to find that National Fuel had some liability. The jury found Equimeter eighty percent at fault for the explosion, National Fuel twenty percent at fault, and American Meter not at fault. Equimeter renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law, again on the same ground, and alternatively moved for a new trial, arguing that the District Court erred in instructing the jury as to National Fuel's liability. Equimeter also moved for a new trial against American Meter, arguing that the ...


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