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Delvaux v. Ford Motor Co.

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT


June 12, 1985

LAURIE DELVAUX, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 890 C 428-Thomas J. Curran, Judge.

Cudahy and Eschbach, Circuit Judges, and Brown, Senior District Judge.*fn*

Author: Cudahy

CUDAHY, Circuit Judge.

Laurie Delvaux brought this action against Ford Motor Company for negligence in the design of a Mustang convertible, and under a theory of strict liability for the unreasonable dangerousness of the design. She appeals from jury verdicts for Ford. We affirm.

I.

Appellant Laurie Delvaux was a passenger in a 1968 Ford Mustang convertible when it overturned at a road construction site in Green Bay, Wisconsin on May 21, 1977. As a result of the accident, Delvaux is paraplegic. Delvaux commenced this product liability action against Ford Motor Company in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin on May 14, 1980. She alleged that the convertible was defective and unreasonably dangerous, and that it was negligently designed in not being provided with a roll bar.

The case went to trial on March 22, 1984; on March 31, 1984, the jury returned a special verdict finding that Ford was not negligent and that the Mustang was not "in such defective condition as to be unreasonably dangerous."

II.

The first issue raised by the appellant is whether the trial court erred in not allowing appellant's counsel to interrogate jurors about improper contacts by defendant-appellee's representatives. Delvaux alleges that the wife of one of the jurors, a Mrs. Seivert, was present during the trial, and that Mrs. Seivert engaged in conversation with the wife of an investigator for the defendant. Delvaux also alleges that during closing argument Mrs. Seivert reacted loudly and inappropriately to argument of counsel for the defendant. Finally, Delvaux alleges that immediately after closing argument and instructions, and before the recess after which the jury was to commence its deliberations, Mrs. Seivert was observed speaking "furtively" with one of the defendant's attorneys. After trial, Delvaux's counsel requested permission to speak with the jury to determine whether extraneous information was improperly brought to the jury's attention, or whether any outside influence was brought to bear. See FED. R. EVID. 606(b). Delvaux argues that it was error for the court to deny this request.

Delvaux's counsel first brought the conversation between Mrs. Seivert and Ford's counsel to the court's attention before the jury began its deliberations. The court then gave counsel three choices: the first was to call in the juror whose wife was involved and question him about the allegations to determine if he should be replaced by one of the alternatives; the second was to allow the jury to continue as originally selected; and the third was to submit the case to all eight jurors, the six regular and the two alternate. Counsel for the parties agreed to the last of these, and the matter was submitted to an eight person jury. Counsel for Delvaux gave as his reason for not wanting to question the juror at that time that such a procedure would create a risk of upsetting and prejudicing the juror against the defendant.

After trial, plaintiff was free to interview jurors in an attempt to secure affidavits that would support a new trial. In March 1984 the verdict was returned; in April 1984 plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial; in May 1984 she filed her notice of appeal. On June 7, 1984, Local Rule 8.06 of the Eastern District of Wisconsin, prohibiting communication with jurors except by leave of the court, went into effect. On June 20, 1984, plaintiff made her first request to interview jurors, a request which the court denied. Citing the requirement of good cause under Rule 8.06, the district court found that Delvaux had not made a sufficient showing of cause to justify examination of the juror.*fn1

Whether to allow the jury to be questioned after trial is within the discretion of the trial judge. Clarkson Co. Ltd. v. Shaheen, 660 F.2d 506, 514 (2d Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 990, 71 L. Ed. 2d 850, 102 S. Ct. 1614 (1982). Considerations of some weight favor allowing such questioning when appropriate. See, e.g., Budoff v. Holiday Inns, Inc., 732 F.2d 1523, 1525-27 (6th Cir. 1984) (mere suggestion that contact was improper may warrant a new trial). But because equally imposing considerations weigh against jury examination after trial, see, e.g., Miller v. United States, 403 F.2d 77 (2d Cir. 1968),*fn2 we will not lightly overturn a decision not to allow such questioning.

In this case, it is clear that the district judge did not abuse his discretion in denying plaintiff the right to question the juror. For all the plaintiff has shown, the wife of a juror apparently had casual conversation with the wife of an investigator for the defendant, and with counsel for both sides.*fn3 No direct contact with a juror has been shown. While any contact, even with relatives of jurors, is cause for suspicion, the seriousness of suspicion raised must be weighed against the disruption caused by the questioning in determining the appropriate response. Here, although the judge did not offer to simply disqualify Mr. Seivert, as plaintiff requested, he did offer to allow plaintiff to question Mr. Seivert before deliberations began. And when plaintiff refused, for tactical reasons, the judge allowed the two alternates to take part in the deliberation as a way of offsetting any possible outside influence. Both parties agreed to this change (although plaintiff did not thereby give up her objection to the judge's failure to disqualify Mr. Seivert).

While we concede that plaintiff is entitled to decline, for tactical reasons, to interrogate the juror, such calculations involve a risk; one risks losing the jury's good will by questioning the juror; but one risks losing the chance to interrogate him if one chooses to keep the good will of the jury. While plaintiff has not given up her right to object, we think that there would have at least to be some direct evidence of outside influence on the jury itself to warrant allowing such questioning after trial, since plaintiff gambled on not questioning him during trial, since plaintiff gambled on not questioning him during trial, when the effect of any possible influence could have been minimized. Some significant justification would be necessary for us to permit two bites at this particular apple, and such justification is missing here. Cf. Garcia v. Murphy Pac. Marine Salvaging Co., 476 F.2d 303 (5th Cir. 1973) (similar rationale for not allowing party with knowledge of misconduct to withhold objection until after verdict).

Finally, nothing prevented plaintiff from interviewing Mr. Seivert after trial; there was at that time no rule requiring court supervision of such an interview. Not only did plaintiff not take advantage of the opportunity, but we can rule out the possibility that plaintiff simply deferred the interview until too late. In April, when moving for a new trial, plaintiff filed with the district court a certificate which confirmed that she had no intention of filing any additional affidavits relating to the motion. Since the question of jury tampering is not relevant to the merits of Delvaux's case, but only to the question of whether she deserves a new trial, and since the one appropriate way to get juror testimony on the issue of tampering before the court on a motion for a new trial is in the form of an affidavit, Delvaux had every reason, if she thought an interview with a jury would be helpful, to secure that interview with a jury would be helpful, to secure that interview before her April 10 motion. The trial court, which had offered to allow interrogation of the juror before the jury began to deliberate, still had nothing but "pure conjecture" to work with on this issue by the time it denied the motion for a new trial on April 27. Delvaux can hardly have been said to have diligently pursued this issue, and it was within the discretion of the trial court to put an end to the matter.

Under these circumstances, the decision of the district judge to prohibit Delvaux from communicating with the jurors about the trial was appropriate.

III.

This suit was brought under theories of negligent design and strict product liability for design defect. The jury found that the convertible Laurie Delvaux was riding in was neither unreasonably dangerous nor negligently designed. Plaintiff Delvaux argues that she was entitled to a directed verdict on the question of negligence; she claims that Ford never tested the convertible Mustang with the top down in rollover crashes, and that such a failure to test is negligent as a matter of law. Ford, on the other hand, claims that it was entitled to directed verdicts on the questions of negligence and strict liability.

In Wisconsin, the standard for a directed verdict is this: taking that view of the evidence which is most favorable to the party against whom the verdict was sought to be directed, if there is any evidence other than mere conjecture or incredible evidence to support a contrary verdict, the case must go to the jury. Samson v. Riesing, 62 Wis. 2d 698, 215 N.W.2d 662, 666 (1974). Further, a jury's verdict will not be upset on appeal if there is any credible evidence to support it. Thompson v. Village of Hales Corners, 115 Wis. 2d 289, 340 N.W.2d 704, 716 (1983). We find that Delvaux was not entitled to a directed verdict; that Ford was entitled to a directed verdict on the question of strict liability; and that although Ford was not entitled to a directed verdict on the question of negligence, the jury verdict of no negligence should stand.

A.

In Dippel v. Sciano, 37 Wis. 2d 443, 155 N.W.2d 55 (1967), the Wisconsin Supreme Court introduced a theory of strict product liability. It adopted the formulation of the Restatement Second of Torts, ยง 402A, which sets out a two part inquiry for liability:*fn4 there must be a defect, and the product must, because of the defect, be unreasonably dangerous.

There are a number of ways of interpreting the requirement of a "defect" in design cases. One way would simply weigh the danger of the actual design against the benefits; Prosser and Keeton call this the "danger/utility" approach. PROSSER & KEETON, TORTS, 699-700 (1984). Another would have the court take the view of the ordinary consumer: assuming that the ordinary consumer [or user] is the best judge of whether the dangers he perceives are outweighed by the benefits of the product, it would assess liability only where the actual danger exceeds those perceived by the ordinary consumer. Prosser and Keeton call this the "consumer-contemplation" (or "user-contemplation") approach. Id. at 698-99.

Although the consumer-contemplation approach reintroduces the discredited "open and obvious" rule, now rejected by most jurisdictions, it is the rule accepted in Wisconsin. See Sumnicht v. Toyota Motor Sales, 121 Wis. 2d 338, 360 N.W.2d 2, 15 (1984). It is true that the rule was questioned in Gracyalny v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 723 F.2d 1311, 1320 (7th Cir. 1983); but it has been asserted in a number of recent cases, and we have no reason to doubt that the proposition in Sumnicht expresses the law for Wisconsin. See Priske v. General Motors Corp., 89 Wis. 2d 642, 279 N.W.2d 227, 235 (1979).

Under this rule, the convertible design of the Mustang is unreasonably dangerous only if it presents dangers not apparent to the ordinary consumer or user. While with most products this is an appropriate question to send to the jury, we believe that, in the case of convertibles, it is so clear that dangers apparent to the ordinary consumer and user include the danger of accidents like the one involved here, that the trial court ought to have directed a verdict for the defendant.

The question in the case of strict liability, after all, is not one of alternative design, but whether the actual design is unreasonably dangerous. D.L. by Friederichs v. Huebner, 110 Wis. 2d 581, 329 N.W.2d 890, 903 (1983).*fn5 Under the consumer-contemplation approach it is very nearly a tautology that dangers which are obvious to the ordinary consumer or user of a product cannot outweigh the benefits of the product. Thus the obvious dangers of a convertible as actually designed, and independently of any possible alternative designs or safety features, do not suffice to make it unreasonably dangerous.

Since the most obvious feature of a convertible is its lack of a roof, dangers which the ordinary consumer would associate with that feature will not support a strict product liability cause of action in Wisconsin. Among those dangers is the danger that, should the car be in a rollover accident, injuries of the sort involved here will occur.

We hold that, as a matter of law, a convertible automobile is not unreasonably dangerous because of its convertible design.

B.

Moreover, the duty of a manufacturer of products with a special design is only to consider alternatives compatible with the special design. Curtis v. General Motors Corp., 649 F.2d 808, 811-12 (10th Cir. 1981). A manufacturer is not negligent for not providing his convertibles with steel roofs, because a convertible is designed as a roofless car. Plaintiff here suggests that a roll bar is a feasible alternative for a convertible.

Defendant's brief takes the position that the manufacturer is not required to consider the roll bar alternative. That position is appropriate for strict liability, but it is not appropriate when determining negligence unless the addition of a roll bar would destroy the convertible feature. Since we cannot say as a matter of law that that is so, and since we cannot say as a matter of law that the addition of the roll bar would not have made the convertible safer to a degree that would have warranted its cost, we think that it was proper to send that question to the jury. But we also find that the jury verdict of no negligence was not without support in the evidence, and should not be overturned.

We need not consider the possible effects of adding a roll bar, for plaintiff has presented only one reason, on this appeal, for thinking that the design was in fact negligent: she argues that Ford had a duty to test the convertible in rollover accidents without the roll bar, and that since it did not do so, the design was negligent.

Testing, of course, is often a duty; a manufacturer cannot escape liability by simply claiming not to know of various dangers. He is charged with a knowledge he would have had, had he made the effort to acquire it. Thus he cannot argue that he didn't know of a certain danger when he would have known of it if he had performed reasonable tests.

But given that rationale, it is apparent that there is not duty to test where a danger is obvious enough so that a manufacturer could not plausibly plead to being unaware of it. We are not certain what plaintiff believes could have been learned in tests such as those she proposes here; certainly it doesn't take much more than an experiment in imagination to see that a rollover accident in a convertible may end in the kind of tragedy that is involved in this case. For the same reason we don't believe that the designer of an airplane is negligent in designing it if he fails to test to determine what would happen should the plane fly into the side of a mountain.

For all that the plaintiff has argued, therefore, there is no reason to question the jury verdict of no negligence.

IV.

Finally, the plaintiff raises a number of points which are irrelevant in light of the holding we have reached. Plaintiff argues that it was error to include on the verdict form room for the assessment of the comparative fault of non-parties. She reasons that since this is a second collision suit, the other parties - the driver, for example - could not have contributed, and their inclusion on the form only distracted the jury from Ford's contribution. The short answer to that is that since the jury found that Ford's percentage of liability was zero, the design being neither negligent nor unreasonably dangerous, the present or absence of other parties on the verdict form was immaterial to the outcome.

The plaintiff also complains of the admission of certain hearsay evidence. Since that evidence concerns the behavior of the driver and the location of the plaintiff in the car at the time of the accident, and thus goes at most to the connection between the alleged negligence or defect and the injury, a finding of no negligence and no defect means that the effect of the testimony was harmless.*fn6

The plaintiff complains, too, that certain other evidence was not admitted, namely the evidence of a rehabilitation expert. But since his testimony was relevant of the issue of damages only, and since no damages were awarded, the exclusion of his testimony was not reversible error.

The last issue plaintiff raises concerns the jury. The jury deliberated from 10:00 P.M. until 1:00 A.M. on the final evening of the trial, and plaintiff argues that the verdict was the product of exhaustion, and of being "pushed" to bring a complicated case to a close.

In fact the trial court gave the jurors the option of waiting until the next day; and the judge made clear that even if deliberations had begun, they could be suspended overnight. The jury began to deliberate, then sent the court a note indicating that they would see where deliberations led. Plaintiff did not object the to lateness of the hour, and apparently the jury was able to reach a decision in something over two hours without any "pushing" or prodding by the trial judge. Decisions of this sort are entrusted to the discretion of the trial judge. United States v. Marques, 600 F.2d 742, 747 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 858, 100 S. Ct. 119, 62 L. Ed. 2d 77(1979).

For the reasons, the judgment of the trial court is affirmed.


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