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Miller v. Rokita





Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County; the Hon. William B. Starnes, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiff, James Miller, appeals from a judgment on a jury verdict for defendants, Donald and Steve Rokita, rendered in plaintiff's action for personal injuries incurred in the course of his employment. Plaintiff claimed he was injured when the left rear axle of the 1975 International Harvester Travel-all he was driving became displaced due to a bearing failure.

Plaintiff was a lead worker for the State of Illinois Department of Transportation. He used a State-owned 1975 International Harvester Travel-all to haul tools and crew members to various job locations. Part of his job was to see that the Travel-all was properly maintained and serviced. On June 12, 1979, plaintiff sustained personal injuries when a bearing failure caused the left rear axle of the Travel-all to leave its housing, and, as a result, plaintiff was thrown violently about the vehicle.

The defendants had had a contract with the State of Illinois for repair work to be performed on State vehicles for 12 years prior to the plaintiff's injury. The State had also performed some of its own repairs at a State garage and had sent vehicles to the Rokitas' garage at times.

The Travel-all had been giving trouble prior to the accident and had been in defendants' shop a number of times. Plaintiff testified to a rear brake problem that had occurred in March 1979. One of his crew had volunteered to replace the brake shoes if the State garage was too busy. Such work was commenced but then stopped by one of the State mechanics. How far the work had proceeded was not shown, but it had been completed by State garage mechanics. Plaintiff testified further that the vehicle had worked well until May 1979, when it was taken to defendants' shop for repairs consisting of rebuilding the transmission and rear-end. The axle had been removed in this operation. Plaintiff then drove the vehicle for a few days until he heard rear-end noise. The vehicle was returned to defendants for repairs at that time and at two or three other times between May and the accident on June 12, 1979. Plaintiff stated that he had complained that the vehicle was smoking from the right rear wheel and that it was not handling properly. He testified that he had seen defendants replace the brake shoes on the right side. On June 12, 1979, plaintiff picked up the truck from defendants. Shortly thereafter, as plaintiff drove to the first job site, the Travel-all began to jump up and down. As a result plaintiff was thrown about and injured.

Steve Rokita testified at trial that he worked on the Travel-all assigned to plaintiff on two occasions. On May 2, 1979, he had rebuilt the transmission and the rear-end of the vehicle. On May 18, 1979, he had worked on the right rear brake. He further testified that the rear-end work did not involve any repair to the left rear axle or bearing.

Since plaintiff's action was founded on charges of negligent repair, the parties called expert witnesses. The plaintiff sought to establish that defendants had failed to install and lubricate the left rear wheel bearings properly during the several repair procedures, and the defendants attempted to show that the failure of the left rear wheel bearing was the result of overload stemming from inadequate design by the manufacturer, International Harvester. Plaintiff's principal expert witness was Mr. Mund, an automobile mechanic of many years' experience, and defendants' principal expert witness was Mr. Armstrong, automobile field mechanic for the State of Illinois.

As might be expected, the expert opinions offered by the parties differed sharply as to the cause of the accident. The plaintiff makes no attempt to discredit the testimony of the defendants' witnesses; rather, he relies on trial errors allegedly committed by the trial court in support of his request for a new trial.

Earl Schuff, shop superintendent for the Department of Transportation, was called by plaintiff. He stated that the left rear axle had come off in the accident and that this had had nothing to do with the right side, which was the side last worked on by defendants. Mr. Schuff examined photos and stated that the axle and bearing had been properly installed. He also stated that both rear wheel bearings had been replaced by the State garage on March 23, 1979.

Mr. Mund testified for plaintiff and gave his opinion that the bearing failure that caused the accident was the result of re-installation of the bearing without proper lubrication and without proper lubrication seals. Mr. Armstrong testified for defendants that the cause of the bearing failure was an overload of the Travel-all that resulted from an improper design of the bearing or the use of a bearing that was too small for the job reasonably to be required of it.

During trial plaintiff raised the question of defendants' use of International Harvester repair manuals. First, Steve Rokita was asked if he had looked at the repair manuals since his deposition had been taken. The defendant answered yes. Later in the trial, the same defendant was recalled to the stand and asked if the repair manuals he had with him in the courtroom were related to the case at bar. The defendant answered no. Plaintiff's expert witness, Mr. Mund, testified that the International Harvester repair manuals were the "bible" of the industry and that he had relied on them to form his opinions. He read portions of the manuals as he explained his testimony to the jury. The plaintiff offered the manuals into evidence. The defendant objected to the manuals as hearsay, and the objection was sustained by the court.

On appeal, the plaintiff asserts that the trial court erred (1) in allowing Herman Armstrong to testify as an expert witness for the defendants, (2) in allowing Mr. Armstrong to give his opinion as to other rear-axle failures on the State's International Harvester vehicles, and (3) in failing to admit the International Harvester repair manuals into evidence.

• 1 The trial judge possesses a wide area of discretion in allowing expert testimony that he feels will aid in the understanding of the issues of the case. (Brendel v. Hustava (1981), 97 Ill. App.3d 792, 423 N.E.2d 503; Presswood v. Morris (1979), 70 Ill. App.3d 513, 388 N.E.2d 844.) Whether a witness is competent to give an expert opinion is a question of fact for the trial court, and the court's determination will be disturbed only upon a clear showing of abuse of discretion. (Tuttle v. Fruehauf Division of Fruehauf Corp. (1984), 122 Ill. App.3d 835, 462 N.E.2d 645; Penrod v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. (1979), 68 Ill. App.3d 75, 385 N.E.2d 376.)

Mr. Armstrong had been an automotive field mechanic for the State of Illinois for the past 11 years. Additionally, he had worked in the State garage as a mechanic for 10 1/2 years prior to becoming a field mechanic. He had ...

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