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03/01/94 TONDA J. PRYOR v. AMERICAN CENTRAL

March 1, 1994

TONDA J. PRYOR, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
AMERICAN CENTRAL TRANSPORT, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County. No. 91-L-705. Honorable Milton S. Wharton, Judge Presiding.

Lewis, Chapman, Goldenhersh

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lewis

PRESIDING JUSTICE LEWIS delivered the opinion of the court:

Plaintiff, Tonda Pryor, appeals from a jury verdict entered in favor of defendant, American Central Transport, Inc., and against plaintiff. On appeal, plaintiff contends that the court erred in not directing a verdict for her on the issue of liability in her cause of action for negligence because of contradictory statements made by defendant in a discovery deposition and an answer given on a subsequent written interrogatory. The basis for plaintiff's claim that a directed verdict was in order is three-pronged: (1) that defendant intentionally misled her with answers in a written interrogatory in which it was stated that no mechanical defect existed in defendant's tractor-trailer immediately prior to the accident involved herein, but at trial, defendant's sole defense to plaintiff's complaint for negligence was that there was a sudden mechanical defect in the truck; (2) that defendant's answers in the interrogatories and other reports were judicial admissions that no sudden mechanical defect occurred; and (3) that even without defendant's discovery abuses and judicial admissions, defendant's evidence for its defense of sudden mechanical defect was insufficient. We affirm for the reasons set forth below.

The evidence adduced at trial was as follows: On January 31, 1990, plaintiff was a passenger in an 18-wheel tractor-trailer truck which was driven by Ronald Hall. At about 7:35 a.m. that day, Hall was driving westbound on Interstate 64 near the O'Fallon, Illinois, exit. Two cars in front of Hall were exiting the interstate at the O'Fallon exit, so Hall changed over into the other westbound lane to go around the slowing cars so that he would not have to reduce his speed. After passing the exit, Hall coughed, and then he proceeded into the right-hand lane. When he went into the right-hand lane, the truck continued onto the right shoulder and into the mud alongside the roadway. The truck continued primarily in a straight direction upon leaving the roadway, but it crossed over the entrance ramp where it hit another car driven by Jack Miller. After crossing the entrance ramp to the interstate, the truck hit two thornbush trees and came to rest in a ditch. Plaintiff was injured in the accident and was taken to Belleville Memorial Hospital, where she was diagnosed as having two compression fractures in her thoracic spine. Plaintiff filed her complaint for negligence against both Ronald Hall and defendant, but, the day before trial, September 28, 1992, she voluntarily dismissed Hall as a defendant with prejudice.

Plaintiff called Dominic Finazzo, Jr., defendant's safety director, who testified that Hall called him immediately after the accident, but Hall did not indicate the cause of the accident. Hall told him that he had had a coughing attack and then the truck went off the highway. Finazzo admitted Hall told him about a spring breaking on the truck, which defendant claimed was the sudden mechanical defect that caused the accident, but he was unable to recall when Hall told him.

State Trooper Quantrel Patterson testified that he investigated the accident, and when he arrived, he saw Hall's truck down an embankment, and another car was to the truck's right. Patterson noticed that Hall's truck had damage to the right front and the car had damage to the left side. Patterson further testified that Hall told him he was driving west on Interstate 64 in the left-hand lane. Patterson testified that Hall told him he had sneezed, and Patterson described Hall's statement as follows: "[He] lost control of his vehicle and at that time, it went off the roadway to the right and he did all he could to stop but he said couldn't [sic] and then he struck the other vehicle." Trooper Patterson did not recall Hall telling him about a broken spring. Patterson said that he would not have let Hall drive away if Hall had told him that a broken spring had caused the accident.

On cross-examination, Trooper Patterson admitted he walked over to the truck with Hall, and that Hall inspected the truck for about 10 minutes, before Hall drove off, but that his recollection of the accident was vague.

Plaintiff testified that she had been on the road with Hall for three weeks to a month before the accident in preparation for going to work for Hall and defendant. She had started the certification process for driving the truck, and all she lacked for certification was the results of her drug test. When Hall called her and asked her to come to work, Hall told her he would pay her $500 per week.

Plaintiff stated that the morning of the accident the condition of the truck was "all right," and that the weather was clear and nice. According to plaintiff, Hall had not been feeling well for a couple of weeks, and he would have coughing spasms. The morning of the accident, the truck was already moving when she woke up. She put on her glasses and moved into her seat and put on her seat belt. Hall was driving in the left-hand lane when she got up. Plaintiff stated that Hall started coughing. When Hall went back into the right-hand lane, he continued to go right. Plaintiff did not feel anything unusual about the truck when Hall started to pull over into the right-hand lane. During the accident, plaintiff's seat belt came loose, and she was bounced around inside the cab of the truck. She primarily hit the seat with her back, but she also hit the dashboard with her knees. As a result of the accident, she suffered two compression fractures and hurt her lower back.

On cross-examination, plaintiff stated that, to the best of her knowledge, Hall was in compliance with all of the regulations the morning of the accident. She also admitted that the truck was in good mechanical condition, that the load was not over the weight limits, and that the materials had been properly loaded on the truck. It was her testimony that Hall was going about 55 miles per hour at the time of the accident. Although plaintiff did not feel the truck jerk before the accident, she admitted that she did not have her hands on the steering wheel. Plaintiff denied that there was a mechanical problem with the truck that caused the accident, but she admitted that Hall told her, when he visited her in the hospital, that a spring broke, causing him to go off the road.

Plaintiff denied that she had told the admitting physician at the hospital that the steering wheel on the truck had locked before the accident and that she told her family physician the same a month later. However, plaintiff's testimony on this issue was contradicted by other testimony.

Plaintiff's counsel read into the record answers to interrogatories given by Hall. According to plaintiff's counsel, these answers constituted an admission by defendant.

Hall testified at trial that he was the owner of the truck he was driving on January 31, 1990; however, he had leased the truck to defendant. Plaintiff was a passenger in the truck that day because Hall was going to hire her as a codriver or relief driver.

Hall explained that he had begun the trip in Dalton, Georgia, on the day before, January 30, 1990. He had travelled as far as Nashville, Illinois, that day but stopped at Nashville for the night. The following morning, he did a visual inspection of his truck as required and found nothing mechanically wrong. Hall's inspection consisted of checking the lights, the brakes, the tires, the fluid levels, and the suspension parts and checking completely around the truck for general soundness. Hall explained that defendant required that the truck be inspected by their mechanics once a month. The date of the last inspection by defendant's mechanics was January 19, 1990, at which time all that was found was a burned-out headlight. The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires that a truck be inspected once a year.

Hall stated he was rested and was in good physical condition the morning of the accident, with the exception that he was suffering from a cold. The weather on January 31, 1990, was clear and dry with a temperature of about 60 degrees. Hall further stated that the truck had been loaded properly the day before and that the weight load was within the required limits.

Hall had driven approximately 36 miles that morning when he came to the O'Fallon exit. At the O'Fallon exit, two cars in front of Hall indicated that they were exiting, and they had slowed down to do so. Hall was driving at about 55 miles per hour, within the speed limit. In order to avoid slowing down for the exiting cars, he changed into the left-hand lane. After passing the two cars, he started back into the right-hand lane. Before changing lanes, he coughed. As Hall moved into the right-hand lane, he felt a "jerk" to the right. The truck went onto the right shoulder and into the mud at the side of the road. Once the wheels of the truck became stuck in the mud, Hall could not straighten the truck. Hall explained that he could not put the brakes on quickly as this would cause the wheels to lock up. Further, if he tried to stop the truck too fast by jamming into a lower gear, the truck would jackknife. He did brake as much as he could and he downshifted two gears in an attempt to slow down the truck and bring it to a stop. He stated that he mainly tried to keep the truck from overturning. The truck went over the entrance ramp, where it struck Jack Miller's car, but continued onward until it came to rest in a ditch after hitting two thornbush trees. Hall was unaware that he had hit ...


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