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Kuziw v. Lake Engineering Co.

decided: October 31, 1978.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 71 C 253 - Joseph Sam Perry, Judge.

Before Sprecher, Circuit Judge, Kilkenny, Senior Circuit Judge,*fn* and Tone, Circuit Judge.

Author: Sprecher

This diversity appeal concerns whether the Illinois doctrine of strict liability in tort requires that the manufacturer's foreseeability of use of his product remain a jury question when there are conflicting views by expert witnesses. We hold that it does and that the district court erred by substituting its own concepts of foreseeability to nullify a jury verdict that was supported, on the foreseeability issue, by expert evidence adduced at trial.


The plaintiff sought to recover damages for personal injury sustained when his arm was caught in a paper baling machine which he was operating in the Garland Building in Chicago, Illinois. The complaint sounded in strict liability in tort and was brought against the manufacturer of the machine; the manufacturer of a component part of the machine, a hydraulic control valve; and the seller of the machine to the plaintiff's employer.

The plaintiff was injured while operating the machine, the function of which was to compress refuse into compact bundles of waste paper. The machine was about three feet high and thirteen feet long and contained three chambers. The chamber at one end of the machine housed a ram powered by an electric motor. The operating handle utilized a hydraulic valve and was designed to center in a neutral position when released, thus stopping the motor and the movement of the ram. When activated, the ram pushed into the center chamber or hopper which the operator had filled with refuse. The ram would then continue to push the refuse into the third chamber at the other end of the machine where a compacted bundle would be formed and automatically bound with twine, ready for removal.

The ram portion of the machine was covered with a plate of 1/8-inch thick steel, which would be removed, thus enabling the operator to clean out debris caught in the ram and to reach the twine threaded through the bottom of the machine. The plaintiff was injured when he was reaching for the twine which had snarled in back of the ram, which was in a forward position. The ram cover plate was off. Since he had removed his hands from the operating handle the hydraulic valve should have returned to the center position and stopped the movement of the ram. Due to a damaged, or "dished," washer on the valve, the hydraulic fluid leaked through the washer and caused the ram to move slowly even though the handle was in the neutral center position. The creeping ram crushed the plaintiff's arm as he unsnarled the twine.

In the district court, issues of liability and damages were severed for trial. After an eleven day trial, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff and against all of the defendants. After two more days of trial before the same jury, the plaintiff's damages were assessed at $95,000.

The trial ended on July 25, 1977. On October 19, the trial judge granted the motions of all the defendants for judgment in their favor and against the plaintiff on the issues of liability and damages, notwithstanding the verdict of the jury. 438 F. Supp. 554 (N.D.Ill.1977). The court entered judgment N. o. v. on the grounds that the ram cover had been removed and that the malfunctioning hydraulic valve had been caused by improper use of the machine.

Jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship and Illinois law governs the case. This circuit looks to state law to determine the standard by which to determine motions for directed verdicts and for judgments notwithstanding the verdict. Illinois State Trust Co. v. Terminal Railroad Ass'n, 440 F.2d 497, 500 (7th Cir. 1971), Cert. denied, 404 U.S. 855, 92 S. Ct. 100, 30 L. Ed. 2d 96 (1971); Kudelka v. American Hoist & Derrick Co., 541 F.2d 651, 654 (7th Cir. 1976).

The Illinois standard was established in Pedrick v. Peoria & E. R. R., 37 Ill.2d 494, 510, 229 N.E.2d 504, 513-14 (1962):

In our judgment verdicts ought to be directed and judgments N. o. v. entered only in those cases in which all of the evidence, when viewed in its aspect most favorable to the opponent, so overwhelmingly favors movant that no contrary verdict based on that evidence could ever stand.


The case proceeded upon the theory of strict liability in tort. Kuziw v. Lake Engineering Co., 398 F. Supp. 961 (N.D.Ill.1975). In order to recover under that theory, plaintiff was required to prove that his injury "resulted from a condition of the product, that the condition was an unreasonably dangerous one and that the condition existed at the time it left the manufacturer's control." Suvada v. White Motor Co., 32 Ill.2d 612, 623, 210 N.E.2d 182, 188 (1965). Since Suvada, "(t)he discernible trend in products liability law has been to ...

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