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Forrest v. Beloit Corp.

September 16, 2005


On appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. District Court No. 00-cv-05032. District Judge: The Honorable Bruce W. Kauffman.

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


Argued March 30, 2005

Before: ALITO, SMITH, and ROSENN, Circuit Judges


Appellant Paul Forrest appeals the District Court's entry of final judgment and its denial of his motion for a new trial following a jury verdict in favor of appellee Beloit Corporation ("Beloit") in a products liability action initiated by Forrest.*fn1 The lawsuit arises from an accident at the paper mill where Forrest was employed, in which his arm became stuck between two multi-ton rollers manufactured by Beloit, resulting in severe and permanent injuries. Forrest sued Beloit, advancing theories of negligence and strict liability under Pennsylvania law. The jury returned a special verdict in favor of Beloit, in which the jury found that Beloit's "Gloss Calender" machine was not defective, and that Beloit was not negligent in connection with the design or manufacture of the Gloss Calender. The special verdict form also addressed causality, with the jury indicating that the actions of Forrest's employer (Jefferson-Smurfit Corporation) constituted intervening forces that actively operated to cause Forrest's accident, and that these actions were so extraordinary Beloit could not reasonably have foreseen them. After the verdict, Forrest moved for a new trial. His motion was denied, and the District Court entered final judgment in favor of Beloit.

Forrest raises five issues. First, Forrest, who is AfricanAmerican, presents a Batson challenge, arguing that the District Court abused its discretion in determining that the defense had proffered race-neutral reasons for striking two African- American jurors. Second, Forrest argues that counsel for Beloit engaged in "professional misconduct" in a manner that improperly influenced the jury's verdict. Third, Forrest argues that the jury's verdict was "tainted" as a result of questions and testimony relating to negligence and alleged OSHA violations purportedly committed by Jefferson-Smurfit. Fourth, Forrest argues that the District Court abused its discretion in permitting testimony concerning the alleged absence of prior accidents involving the Gloss Calender that crushed Forrest's arm. Fifth, Forrest argues that the District Court erred by permitting Beloit's expert to testify whether the presence of a guard on the Gloss Calender would have prevented Forrest's accident.

We will reverse the judgment of the District Court and remand for a new trial. While the majority of Forrest's challenges either lack merit or were not properly preserved, we believe Forrest argues correctly that the District Court abused its discretion by permitting Beloit to adduce testimony from two paper mill employees concerning the alleged absence of prior accidents involving the Gloss Calender on which Forrest was injured. The issue of the admissibility of evidence concerning the absence of prior accidents presents recurring difficulties in product liability cases, and this Court has yet to address this issue in the context of the Federal Rules of Evidence. After disposing of Forrest's other arguments, we take this opportunity to provide the district courts with guidance concerning the foundation that must be laid by a product liability defendant who seeks to introduce testimony concerning the non-occurrence of prior accidents.


A. The Paper-Making Process

Forrest's underlying lawsuit arises out of injuries he suffered on November 30, 1999, during the course of his employment at a paper mill operated by Jefferson-Smurfit. Forrest suffered his injuries while trying to clear a paper jam in an eighty- to one-hundred yard line of machines that transform wood pulp slurry into large rolls of dry paper. At the dry end of the line, the paper is run through two sets of calenders, or "dry stacks," which are large rotating rollers that feed the Gloss Calender. As the paper is propelled from the dry stacks towards the Gloss Calender, it first passes under an "air shower" and then over a lead-in roller known as a "Mount Hope roll." The air shower and Mount Hope roll were not part of the original Gloss Calender when it was designed and manufactured by Beloit in 1963. The Gloss Calender itself is an additional set of multi-ton rollers, consisting of a top roll, called the "gloss roll" or "dryer roll," and a lower roll called the "pressure roll" or "mate roll."

William Brody, Forrest's crew supervisor and a seventeen-year employee of Jefferson-Smurfit, testified that paper is generally run through the Gloss Calender regardless of whether gloss is applied, because the Gloss Calender rolls smooth the paper and support it as it moves toward the cutter at the end of the line. The opening between the Gloss Calender's two rollers is referred to as a "nip"; the size of the nip may vary depending upon whether gloss is being applied. Trial testimony indicated that Beloit's original design for the Gloss Calender called for the opening between the two rolls to be approximately eight feet, five inches off of the floor. Beloit's former chief engineer, George Wong, also testified that the Gloss Calender was originally designed to be threaded with the user standing on the floor. However, testimony from multiple Jefferson-Smurfit employees indicated that a different procedure was employed during paper breaks. In these situations, an employee would climb a set of steps located near one of the dry stacks, and would lean over the air shower and manually feed the paper through the Gloss Calender rolls to an employee waiting on the other side.

B. Forrest's Accident

Forrest's accident occurred on November 30, 1999. It is not clear from the record whether at the time of the accident the Gloss Calender was applying gloss. There is no dispute, however, that a paper jam occurred, and that Forrest mounted the dry stack steps to feed a "tail" of paper through the Gloss Calender, in the manner described above. Forrest testified that he was working about eight to ten inches away from the nip. He testified that as he was attempting to feed the paper, his hand got pulled into the rollers, after which he had no further recollection of what occurred. Testimony from other witnesses present at the time showed that when Forrest's arm was caught between the two Gloss Calender rollers, the entire paper production line was shut down. The fire department and Forrest's co-workers eventually extricated Forrest after removing the top Gloss Calender roll. Forrest suffered severe and permanent injuries as a result of the accident.

C. Forrest's Lawsuit

Forrest sued Beloit, advancing theories of strict liability and negligence under Pennsylvania law. Two of Forrest's pretrial motions in limine relate to issues presented in this appeal. Forrest's first motion in limine sought to exclude references at trial to (1) alleged negligence on the part of Jefferson-Smurfit; (2) Jefferson-Smurfit's alleged violations of or non-compliance with OSHA standards and regulations; and (3) any OSHA investigations, proceedings, findings, reports or adjudications. Forrest's second motion in limine sought to exclude all references at trial to the alleged absence of prior accidents involving Beloit's Gloss Calender machines, including the Gloss Calender on which Forrest suffered his injuries. Forrest argued that Beloit had failed to establish an adequate foundation for the admissibility of such evidence, given that Beloit's witnesses admitted during deposition testimony that they were unaware of any databases or incident logs used by Beloit to track whether users of the Gloss Calender or other similar Beloit machines suffered injuries in circumstances similar to those surrounding Forrest's accident. Beloit responded by arguing that evidence reflecting the absence of prior accidents involving the Gloss Calender was admissible on the contested issue of causation. Beloit also asserted that it would first lay an adequate foundation as required under the Federal Rules of Evidence before introducing such testimony. The District Court denied Forrest's motions in limine, while preserving Forrest's right to raise his evidentiary objections in context at trial.*fn2

D. The Jury Trial and Verdict

Jury selection commenced on January 14, 2004, and trial ended on February 9, 2004, when the jury returned a defense verdict. The special verdict form reflects four specific findings. The jury found: (1) that the Gloss Calender machine was not defectively designed in 1963; (2) that Beloit was not negligent in its design, manufacture, or sale of the Gloss Calender machine in 1963; (3) that Forrest's employer, Jefferson-Smurfit, had taken intervening actions that actively operated to cause Forrest's accident; and (4) that these actions were so extraordinary they could not reasonably have been foreseen by Beloit. Following the jury's verdict, Forrest moved for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Forrest also filed a supplemental memorandum regarding his Batson challenge. On April 15, 2004, the District Court denied Forrest's motion for a new trial and again rejected his Batson challenge. This appeal followed.


A. Jurisdiction

The District Court had subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) and 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

B. Standard of Review

With respect to Forrest's Batson challenge, the District Court's finding concerning the absence of intentional discrimination is reviewed for clear error. See United States v. Casper, 956 F.2d 416, 419 (3d Cir. 1992) (citing Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 98 n.21 (1986)). We review the District's Court's allegedly inadequate response to supposed attorney misconduct for an abuse of discretion. See Wagner v. Fair Acres Geriatric Center, 49 F.3d 1002, 1017 (3d Cir. 1995). The District Court's determinations concerning the admissibility of evidence are reviewed for an abuse of discretion as well. See In re Merritt Logan, Inc. v. Fleming Companies, 901 F.2d 349, 359 (3d Cir. 1990). An abuse of discretion arises where the District Court's decision "rests upon a clearly erroneous finding of fact, errant conclusion of law or an improper application of law to fact." Oddi v. Ford Motor Co., 234 F.3d 136, 146 (3d Cir. 2000).

To the extent an evidentiary issue turns on the interpretation of a Federal Rule of Evidence, rather than the mere application of the rule, our review is plenary. See In re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litigation, 35 F.3d 717, 749 (3d Cir. 1994). Likewise, the propriety of the District Court's interpretations of substantive state law are subject to plenary review. See Waldorf v. Shuta, 896 F.2d 723, 728 (3d Cir. 1990). Where an appellant's arguments for a new trial implicate questions of fact, we view "all the evidence and inferences ...

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