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Roback v. V.I.P. Transport Inc.

July 16, 1996









Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 91 C 5902--James F. Holderman, Judge.

Before CUMMINGS, ROVNER, and DIANE P. WOOD, Circuit Judges.

ROVNER, Circuit Judge.



A jury found truck driver Rodney Martin and the moving firm for which he worked, V.I.P. Transportation, Inc., liable for the injuries Joseph Roback and Wendy Rizzo suffered when Martin's truck rear-ended the automobile in which they were driving. Martin and VIP had filed a third-party complaint against Chicago Kenworth, Inc., Paccar, Inc., and AlliedSignal, Inc. based on a purported defect in the cruise control system of Martin's truck. That defect, according to the defendants, contributed to the collision by distracting Martin's attention from the roadway until it was too late for him to stop the truck and avoid colliding with the car in front of him. The district court entered summary judgment in favor of these third-party defendants prior to trial, however. Martin and VIP appeal both the grant of summary judgment and the jury's modest award of punitive damages. They contend that the district court overlooked factual questions regarding the extent to which Martin's negligence alone caused the accident and that it erred in excluding evidence from two experts that would have bolstered their claim that the cruise control defect was a proximate cause of the collision and the plaintiffs' injuries. *fn1 We affirm the grant of summary judgment but vacate the award of punitive damages.


At approximately 8:00 p.m. on July 2, 1991, Roback and Rizzo were on their way to a concert at the World Music Theater in Tinley Park, Illinois along with Paul Horjes and Melissa Johnson. Roback was driving and had brought the car in which they were riding to a complete stop in the far right line of Interstate 80 westbound, waiting to exit the highway onto Harlem Avenue southbound. Concert traffic was so dense that Roback's car was at that point last in a line of vehicles a mile and a half long waiting to exit. Rizzo, who was sitting in the back seat of Roback's car along with Johnson, leaned forward between the front seats asking that the radio be turned up so that she could enjoy a favorite song. Within seconds, Martin's tractor-trailer crashed into the rear of the car, killing Johnson.

Although Horjes emerged from the vehicle relatively unscathed, both Roback and Rizzo suffered significant injuries. The bone structure around one of Roback's eyes was fractured and had to be reconstructed surgically. Rizzo's liver was lacerated and also had to be repaired in surgery. They each suffered a variety of other lacerations, and although both have recovered well physically, each bears visible scars and Roback, who suffered a moderate hearing loss in one ear, continues to experience tinnitus, a constant ringing in that ear.

Martin has been an over-the-road truck driver since 1979. Martin owns his truck and is thus self-employed. Since 1988, he has contracted his services to VIP, which does business under the more commonly known name of Allied Van Lines. VIP leases Martin's truck and pays him to drive it. VIP owned the trailer that Martin was pulling at the time of the accident.

In late 1988, Martin purchased a Model T600A truck from Kenworth and took delivery of that vehicle in early 1989. Martin paid approximately $100,000 for the new vehicle. The vehicle had an expected life of over one million miles; at the time of the accident, it had accumulated 250,000 miles. One of the options that had been installed on the vehicle at Martin's request was a cruise control system. That system was manufactured by AlliedSignal.

Martin had begun to experience problems with the cruise control and speedometer of his truck in May of 1991. While Martin was driving in northern California with the cruise control engaged and set at 55 miles per hour, suddenly "the truck just went haywire" (Tr. 362): the digital speedometer began to display rapidly fluctuating speeds of between 30 and 50 miles per hour, while at the same time the engine of the truck (which was normally quite quiet) alternately revved to very high RPMs, as if the truck were accelerating dramatically, and then backed off consistent with deceleration. This caused the truck to vibrate in an alarming fashion. Ultimately, Martin disengaged the cruise control by flipping the appropriate toggle switch on the dashboard of the cab. The erratic behavior of the truck ceased immediately. On the following day, Martin took the truck into a Kenworth dealership in San Leandro, California and reported the problem. A sensor unit on the vehicle was replaced. Martin then drove his truck across country to the east coast. While driving through the Southwestern desert, Martin attempted to engage the cruise control and on several occasions the truck displayed the same erratic behavior that he had experienced in California. When Martin returned to California from the east coast a short time later, he telephoned the San Leandro dealership to inform them that he was still experiencing difficulty with the truck, but that dealership was unable to work him into its repair schedule. When Martin returned to his Florida home in June, he took the truck to another Kenworth dealership in Orlando and described the recurrent malfunction. The sensor was once again replaced, and Martin was credited for the apparently faulty sensor installed in San Leandro. Shortly after the repairs, Martin left Orlando and drove to Greensboro, North Carolina. En route, he engaged the cruise control and, again, the same phenomenon occurred with the wildly fluctuating speedometer and racing engine. Martin turned the cruise control off. From Greensboro, Martin proceeded to Hanover, Maryland, where he spent the night. On the following day, July 1, he left Hanover bound for Chicago. He spent the evening of July 1 at a rest stop outside Delta, Ohio, near the Indiana border. (Martin's truck was equipped with a sleeper berth.)

At 3:00 a.m. on July 2, Martin began the final leg of his journey to Chicago. Rain and an abundance of state troopers counseled in favor of keeping the truck at a speed of 55, so Martin decided to engage the cruise control. After a stop at the Indiana toll booth, the system malfunctioned yet again. This time, however, Martin noticed that in addition to the speedometer behaving erratically, the accelerator pedal dropped to the floor and the truck steadily began to increase its velocity beyond the set speed of 55 miles per hour. Frightened by the runaway acceleration, Martin switched the system off and the trouble ceased. Martin continued the trip without incident and arrived in Chicago at the Pickens-Kane storage facility at 6:45 a.m. After unloading the trailer and having breakfast with friends, Martin drove his truck to the Chicago Kenworth dealer where he had purchased the truck.

Martin described the problem to the service manager at the Kenworth dealer and then waited for the rest of the day while his truck was examined and repaired. The repair order by the service writer at Chicago Kenworth, read as follows:

Customer complaint: Speedo will work erratically. Customer has had sender replaced and speedo replaced. Was told rear yoke on trans. may be causing the problem. Works fine after trans. is warmed up. Gets D152 code on dash which indicates a bad sending unit. Martin Dep., Plaintiffs' Ex. 18.

The first mechanic who worked on Martin's truck found that the sensor was working, but he also discovered that a bolt holding together the two halves of a 16-way plug located at the firewall of the truck had been stripped, resulting in a loose connection in the wiring. He tightened the connection before he went off duty at 4:00 p.m. He instructed the mechanic coming on duty after him to drill out and replace the stripped bolt. That mechanic did so and then checked the diagnostic computer in Martin's truck to see whether it would generate an error code. It did not, which apparently satisfied the mechanic that any problem had been corrected. He did not, however, take the truck for a test drive as he conceded he would have had the speedometer itself been repaired. Nor did he examine the rear yoke referenced in the repair order. The rear yoke is a part which connects the transmission of the truck to the drive line. The first mechanic conceded at trial that a loose yoke might result in erratic and false signals to the speedometer and cruise control system. The repairs ...

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