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Sauget v. Beuckman Ford





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County; the Hon. DELMAR KOEBEL, Judge, presiding.


On September 25, 1973, Arnold Sauget was injured when a dump truck bed, fully loaded with lime dust, fell on his right hand which was resting on the truck frame rail supporting the bed. Sauget brought an action based on strict liability in tort against Beuckman Ford, Inc., as seller of the truck, alleging that his injury was the result of a defective power take-off unit mounted on the truck which caused the bed to abruptly drop. A jury in the circuit court of St. Clair County returned a verdict in favor of Sauget in the amount of $63,000. Beuckman appeals the trial court's denials of its motions for a directed verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

The evidence at trial shows that on the day of the mishap, Sauget was employed by the village of Cahokia as a laborer and was assigned to a construction crew operating at a work site on Cooper Avenue in the village. At approximately 11 a.m. a dump truck loaded with lime dust arrived at the site. The driver, Joseph Howard, activated the power take-off unit of the hoist in an attempt to raise the truck bed and dump the load. However, after being raised only 12 to 18 inches the bed stopped and would go no further. Sauget was standing at the rear of the truck and was pulling on a rod attached to the dump box which freed the tailgate and allowed it to open as the bed rose. He then crawled beneath the driver's side of the truck behind the cab in order to see if anything was obstructing the hoist. While Sauget was in this position with his right hand on the truck frame rail for leverage, the bed fell down. Sauget testified that he did not touch any levers or switches while he was under the truck. When Howard became aware of Sauget's predicament, he pulled a hoist control cable knob and was able to raise the bed high enough for workers to extricate Sauget's hand.

The truck involved in this case is a 1973 Ford F-600 single axle, dump truck bearing a serial number whose last four digits are 0435 and which was purchased new from Beuckman by the village. The vehicle was equipped with a Daybrook hoist furnished and installed by Transportation Equipment Company of Vandalia, Illinois. The serial number of the hoist as shown in plaintiff's exhibit No. 16 is 161306.

Anthony Golec, a private investigator for Sauget's trial counsel, took statements from several occurrence witnesses, including Melvin Reagan, a superintendent for new construction projects for the village. Reagan's statement, Plaintiff's Exhibit No. 49, described the accident in the following manner:

"The truck driver started to unload the load of lime dust and the dump bed raised up a little bit — no more than just three or four inches — and then hung there. There is a box with a manual trip on it right where the hoist is on the driver's right side of the dump bed and the foreman of the sewer department crew Arnold was working on said he would trip this manual trip to raise the dump bed and when he said, `I'll get it,' Arnold said, `Here, let me get it,' and Arnold climbed underneath the dump bed frame and hit this manual trip lever. When he hit the manual trip lever, the dump bed should have gone up but instead it went down on Arnold's hand * * *."

In a report to Sauget's counsel, Golec characterized Reagan as being favorable and sympathetic to Sauget and was of the opinion that Reagan would make a good witness.

Reagan's testimony at trial differed significantly from his statement to Golec. He said that he did not know whether Sauget did in fact touch any levers when he was beneath the truck. He added that his vision of Sauget was blocked when the bed came down.

In his testimony, Reagan also made reference to the mechanical condition of the truck prior to the mishap. He recalled that the vehicle's hoisting system began to malfunction within a week or two of the truck's purchase from Beuckman by the village. At times the bed would not raise while under a load, and at other times it could not be lifted even when empty. He mentioned that he saw the bed drop twice when it was fully loaded. In all, he stated that the truck was sent to Beuckman for servicing of the hoist on five occasions. Reagan asserted that during one of the service calls, he lodged a complaint with the service manager to the effect that the hoisting problems could be solved if the dashboard cable system controlling the power take-off unit were replaced with a system utilizing a lever mounted on the floor of the cab. When the truck was returned to Beuckman for further repairs after the accident, he said that the cable linkage was removed and a lever on the floor was installed to operate the hoist. The village had no more trouble with the hoist unit on the truck after this lever modification.

Joseph Howard testified that on the morning of September 25 he went to a quarry to pick up a load of lime dust for the construction project. He experienced no difficulty with the hoist until he tried to unload at the job site. He related that after the bed became suspended at 12 to 18 inches, he did not touch any knobs controlling the hoist which would have caused the bed to fall. His opinion as to why the bed fell unassisted is presented in the following colloquy between Sauget's counsel and himself:

"Q. Basing this answer on your years as a driver, Mr. Howard, and with your experience with hoist systems, would you have an opinion as to whether or not this system at the time Arnold was injured was defective?

A. I would have to say yes.

Q. Why?

A. Due to the fact that they took the truck into the shop and they put a new one on there. They put a whole new unit on that there and they changed the knob for the up and down motion from the dashboard to the floorboard. So, I ...

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