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Ryan v. Blakey

OPINION FILED MAY 1, 1979.

EVERETT RYAN ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,

v.

JONATHAN K. BLAKEY ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County; the Hon. JOSEPH F. CUNNINGHAM, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE KARNS DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

This cause of action arose out of an automobile collision in which defendant, Jonathan K. Blakey, drove his automobile through a stop sign and flashing overhead stoplight into the passenger side of a pickup truck manufactured by defendant, International Harvester Company, and driven by plaintiff, Everett Ryan. Mr. Ryan was returning home from a camping trip with his wife and four minor children. A few seconds after impact, the truck burst into flames resulting in the death of two of the children and burns to the survivors. Mrs. Ryan suffered severe and permanent disabling and disfiguring injuries. Plaintiffs brought suit against Blakey alleging negligence in the operation of his automobile and against International Harvester Company in products liability alleging an unreasonably dangerous gasoline containment system. The jury returned verdicts in favor of Everett Ryan and Lorraine Ryan, his wife, against both defendants for $101,000 and $3,000,000 respectively; for each of the surviving children against Blakey only for $1,000 and for each of the deceased children against Blakey only for $24,000. The trial court found the verdicts in favor of Lorraine Ryan and Everett Ryan excessive and ordered remittiturs of $450,000 and $1,000 respectively, which plaintiffs accepted. The defendants now appeal the judgments entered against them arguing numerous errors, including the excessiveness of the judgments in favor of Mr. and Mrs. Ryan.

At the time of the accident, plaintiffs were traveling west on Douglas-Millstadt Road in their pickup truck on which a slide-in camper was attached. Mr. and Mrs. Ryan were in the cab of the truck and the four children were in the slide-in camper. Defendant Blakey was traveling south on Floraville Road which intersected the Douglas-Millstadt Road. He drove through the intersection without stopping at a speed estimated from 20 to 50 mph into the passenger side of the westbound truck. The impact was so severe that the automobile and pickup truck-camper were virtually demolished. The right steel frame rail of the truck was permanently damaged; its drive shaft was broken in half; the gasoline tank burst open at the seam; and holes were torn in the floor of the cab on the passenger side near the transmission hump. The force of the collision caused the truck-camper to skid a great distance across the center line of the highway to a point southwest of the place of impact. When the truck came to a stop, the camper in which the children were riding was hanging upside down from the side of the truck.

Mr. Ryan testified that immediately upon impact he smelled and felt gasoline on his neck and back. Instantaneously, there was fire across the back of his shirt and head. The first flash of flame Mr. Ryan noticed was behind him in the cab. When he was able to open his door, he pulled his wife out of the truck and jumped and rolled on the ground to put out the fire. Over the objection of defendant Harvester, plaintiffs introduced into evidence a hospital admission record which contained a free hand drawing made by an unidentified person depicting a burn on the back of Mr. Ryan's neck. Photographs after the accident, however, revealed no noticeable burns on the neck. In addition, the treating physician testified that Mr. Ryan suffered no neck burns.

Two of the children escaped through a small hole in the camper. The other two children died before help could reach them. Lorraine Ryan testified that she could not remember anything about the accident or events occurring approximately one month thereafter. While she was testifying to the extent of her injuries, a woman juror left the jury box crying, "I am sorry, I can't take any more." Both defendants immediately moved for a mistrial. Upon interrogation by the court out of the presence of the other jurors, the juror stated that she would be fair and impartial and would be able to follow the jury instructions given at the close of the trial. The court then denied the mistrial motions.

As the major controversy in this action centers on the placement and operation of the fuel containment system, it is necessary to describe its workings in detail. The vehicle, a 1965 International Harvester pickup truck, contained a rectangular 20-gallon steel gas tank and a 16-inch long metal filler pipe. The tank consisted of two halves welded together along a seam. It was connected to the frame of the truck by metal straps beneath the floor of the cab on the passenger side. The filler pipe system had two parts: a six-inch metal pipe which extended from the tank through the floor of the cab behind the passenger seat and another metal pipe which extended from the truck behind the passenger door fitted with a gas cap at its end. The two filler pipe sections were connected by a flexible neoprene coupling secured by two metal hose clamps at a point six inches above the floor of the cab.

Plaintiffs theorize that the placement of the gasoline filler pipe inside the cab of the truck was an unreasonably dangerous condition which proximately caused the injuries to plaintiffs. They claim that the severe impact of the collision caused the filler pipe to separate at its weakest link, the neoprene connection. The gasoline from the tank then "hydrauliced" as a result of the compression of the tank and passed through the broken filler pipe spraying the plaintiffs with gasoline which instantly ignited.

Defendant Harvester contends that the gasoline tank burst on impact causing gasoline vapors to escape into and around the cab. These vapors were ignited by a spark from the broken drive shaft which was dragging along the roadway, and a flash fire ensued engulfing the inside and outside of the cab.

Three eyewitnesses were called to testify to the location of the flames, and specifically whether they were confined to the cab of the truck. Norman Simmonds, one of the eyewitnesses, testified that he was in his house located approximately 1000 feet from the intersection when he heard the collision. Upon looking towards the scene of the accident, he immediately saw flames, mainly on the passenger side of the cab, rising at door level and above. He stated that he saw no flames under the truck or on the pavement. On cross-examination, however, Simmonds testified that he probably was not looking in the area under the truck because his main focus was on the flames concentrated on the passenger's side. As the flames were so intense, he could not determine whether they were outside or inside the truck.

Shirley Simmonds, the wife of Norman Simmonds, was walking across a field close to her home when the accident occurred. Upon impact, she looked and noticed flames coming from the passenger side of the cab. She did not recall seeing any flames under the truck or on the road. On cross-examination, she testified that she could not say whether the flames were inside or outside the truck.

John Campe testified that on the date of the accident he was driving one-eighth of a mile behind Blakey's automobile on Floraville Road. He saw Blakey go through the intersection and knew that a collision was inevitable. He first believed that the pickup truck had hit Blakey's automobile in the side. Approximately two to five seconds after the impact, he saw flames inside the cab of the truck coming out of the passenger's window. He believed the truck had rolled over, a fact denied by Mr. Ryan and Shirley Simmonds.

Five expert witnesses were called to testify, two by plaintiffs and three by defendant Harvester. Plaintiffs' experts were Jay Bolt, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, and Paul O'Shea, a consultant in the automobile research business. In the opinions of Professor Bolt and Mr. O'Shea, the fire started inside the cab when gasoline spilled therein after the neoprene coupling separated. To arrive at this conclusion, both experts apparently relied on plaintiffs' attorney's representations that the fire was confined exclusively to the cab compartment of the truck. For example, the following exchange occurred between plaintiffs' attorney and Professor Bolt on redirect examination:

"Q. * * * [D]id you rely upon the witness's testimony in this case to form that opinion as to where the fire started, whether it was internal or outside of that cab * * *.

A. Yes.

Q. Okay.

A. I think we relied in part or in good measure on the testimony of those there.

Q. Now, in your judgment, Professor Bolt, or in your opinion, had there been an external ignition — originally or initially — underneath and in the back area — underneath this truck — wouldn't there be flame visible to witnesses here underneath the truck, from spilling gasoline?

A. I would certainly expect so.

Q. Do you understand and did you understand in this case that all the witnesses agreed that the first fire that they saw was within the cab?

MR. COGHILL [counsel for Harvester]: Your Honor, I will object also to the form of the question * * *.

THE COURT: As to the form of the question

Q. Were you aware, Professor Bolt, that all the witnesses agreed —

MR. COGHILL: This is the same thing, your Honor; he is stating it in the same way. I am going to object to that * * *.

THE COURT: As to the form of the question.

Q. Did you understand the testimony in this ...


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