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Hill v. International Harvester Co.

decided: August 18, 1986.

CARL A. HILL AND EVELYN V. HILL, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
INTERNATIONAL HARVESTER COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division, No. 81 C 463-Allen Sharp, Chief Judge.

Author: Ripple

Before BAUER, COFFEY and RIPPLE, Circuit Judges.

RIPPLE, Circuit Judge. The appellee, Carl A. Hill, was injured when the truck he was driving left the road and struck a culvert alongside Interstate Highway 80 in Illinois. As a result of these injuries, Mr. Hill and his wife brought this strict liability action against International Harvester Company (Harvester) alleging that the truck was defective when manufactured. After a jury trial, the Hills were awarded approximately $300,000 in compensatory damages. Harvester now contends that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that the vehicle was defective at the time of the accident and when it left Harvester's control. Accordingly, it submits that the district court should have granted its post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the jury's verdict (judgment n.o.v.) or, in the alternative, for a new trial. We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the district court.

I

Carl Hill is a truck driver who, at all times relevant to this appeal, was assigned to drive a 1979 International Harvester Transtar II truck tractor. On the night of the accident, Mr. Hill was driving east on Interstate Highway 80. He was transporting a shipment of folded paper cartons from Clinton, Iowa to Morris, Illinois. The road was straight and the night was clear and dry.

Shortly after midnight on August 16, 1980, after the truck had crossed an expansion strip in the road, Mr. Hill heard a snap in the right, front corner of the truck's cab. The truck then veered sharply to the left toward the median strip which divided the highway. Despite Mr. Hill's efforts to turn the vehicle to the right, the steering wheel apparently locked and the truck continued left onto the grassy median. It then struck a culvert, ricocheted back across the highway, and finally came to rest against a guardrail on the right side of the road.

At the time of the accident, the truck was two years old and had been driven approximately 225,000 miles. However, apart from the cause of the accident-a cause which was never specifically proven at trial-the truck was in good condition. The trial record indicates that the truck was thoroughly inspected when delivered to CRST-the firm which owned it. That inspection failed to detect any problems. The record also indicates that the truck was subjected to an extensive maintenance program. While the parties disagree over the inferences which should be drawn from this maintenance, the maintenance record is nonetheless well documented.*fn1

The record further indicates that Mr. Hill had maintained a generally good driving record throughout his career.*fn2 However, since the present incident occurred at night and did not involve another vehicle, a question arose at trial concerning Mr. Hill's attentiveness at the time. To rebut any inference of his own error, Mr. Hill testified that he was not asleep when the accident occurred. This testimony was corroborated by Officer Bernardoni, an Illinois master trooper, who concluded that the wreck had not been caused by driver inattention.

Officer Bernardoni also testified concerning his investigation at the scene of the accident. First, he indicated that the physical condition of the road could not have caused the crash. Also, he stated that Mr. Hill acted properly by not attempting to brake the truck while it was skidding across the median. Finally, Officer Bernardoni testified that the physical evidence at the scene indicated that the truck's front tires were splayed when the truck entered the median: the left tire was pointing forward and the right tire was pointed either in or out. This testimony was apparently offered by the Hills to indicate that some defect existed in the truck's steering system.*fn3

Harvester argued that this evidence was insufficient to support a finding that the truck was defective at the time it left Harvester's control. It therefore moved for the entry of judgment n.o.v. or, in the alternative, for a new trial. The district court denied both motions, and that decision is now before us for review.

II

We first turn to the motion for judgment n.o.v. Since the district court's jurisdiction was based on diversity of citizenship, see 28 U.S.C. ยง 1332, we look to the state standard to determine whether the district court should have granted the motion. Pucalik v. Holiday Inns, Inc., 777 F.2d 359, 361 (7th Cir. 1985); Oberman v. Dun & Bradstreet, Inc., 507 F.2d 349, 352 (7th Cir. 1974). Under Illinois law,*fn4 "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 [the] movant that no contrary verdict based on that evidence could ever stand." Pedrick v. Peoria and Eastern Railroad Company, 37 Ill. 2d 494, 229 N.E.2d 504, 513-14 (1967). With this standard in mind, we now turn to the merits of Harvester's contention.*fn5

The Supreme Court of Illinois adopted the doctrine of strict liability in Suvada v. White Motor Company, 32 Ill. 2d 612, 210 N.E.2d 182, 186 (1965). In that case, the court described the elements of a strict liability claim as follows: "The plaintiffs must prove that their injury or damage 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." Id. at 188. Thus, to establish a claim under strict liability, a plaintiff must prove 1) that the product is defective, and 2) that the defect existed when the product left the manufacturer's hands.*fn6 See Millette v. Radosta, 84 Ill. App. 3d 5, 404 N.E.2d 823, 39 Ill. Dec. 232 (1980). A few years after Suvada, the Illinois Supreme Court elaborated on its strict liability analysis by defining further a "defective product." In Dunham v. Vaughan & Bushnell Mfg. Co., 42 Ill. 2d 339, 247 N.E.2d 401, 403 (1969), the court identified defective products as those products "which are dangerous because they fail to perform in the manner reasonably to be expected in light of their nature and intended function." Only ten years ago, the Illinois Supreme Court synthesized these two decisions and, in Tweedy v. Wright Ford Sales, Inc., 64 Ill. 2d 570, 357 N.E.2d 449, 452, 2 Ill. Dec. 282 (1976), held that:

A prima facie case that a product was defective and that the defect existed when it left the manufacturer's control is made by proof that in the absence of abnormal use or reasonable secondary causes the product failed "to perform in the manner ...


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