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Stallings v. Black and Decker (U.S.)

August 14, 2003

RICHARD M. STALLINGS, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF RICHARD R. STALLINGS, DECEASED, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
BLACK AND DECKER (U.S.), INC., A FOREIGN CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Williamson County. No. 93-L-59 Honorable Ronald Eckiss, Judge, presiding.

Justices: Honorable Melissa A. Chapman, J. Honorable Gordon E. Maag, J., and Honorable James K. Donovan, J., Concur

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Chapman

UNPUBLISHED

The plaintiff, Richard M. Stallings, administrator of the estate of Richard R. Stallings, deceased, brought this action in the circuit court of Williamson County to recover damages for the wrongful death of the decedent. The lawsuit is based on a products liability claim against the manufacturer of a circular saw. The jury found in favor of the defendant, and the administrator appeals, following the denial of posttrial motions. The issues for review are whether the trial court erred in refusing to set aside the verdict after a juror's misconduct was discovered and whether the trial court erred in refusing to allow the plaintiff to put on evidence of an alternative feasible design. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

I. BACKGROUND

April 17, 1991, began as a normal workday at one of the Stallings' farms near Carmi, Illinois, but ended in tragedy. Twenty-two-year-old Richard R. Stallings (Ryan), a recent University of Illinois graduate with a degree in animal industries, was one of several family members who ran the family's large grain, cattle, and hog operation. Early that morning, he and his father met to discuss work to be done-which included the repair of a wooden cattle feeder. Leslie Simpson, another farm employee, worked with Ryan most of the day, doing chores and grinding feed. They parted company at about 3:30 in the afternoon, which was the last time anyone saw Ryan alive. That evening, Ryan's uncle, Rex Stallings, had the unfortunate experience of finding Ryan's body in a work shed at the Carmi farm. Ryan was lying facedown on top of a piece of board. There appeared to be a fresh cut in the board, which was splattered with blood. A circular saw was on the workbench behind his body. There was blood and human tissue on the blade and on the guard of the saw. Ryan's carotid artery and jugular vein were severed. He had bled to death.

Richard M. Stallings, Ryan's father, brought suit against the defendant, Black and Decker (U.S.), Inc., a foreign corporation, and Gilbert Stallings, Ryan's grandfather, in the Williamson County circuit court. Following an approved settlement agreement, Gilbert Stallings was dismissed from the suit. The plaintiff's amended complaint against the defendant sounded in negligence and strict liability, alleging that the circular saw that had caused Ryan's death was unreasonably dangerous because it was not equipped with a riving blade to prevent kickback. The defendant prevailed on a summary judgment motion on the issue of proximate cause. The plaintiff appealed and we reversed and remanded for further proceedings. Stallings v. Black & Decker (U.S.), Inc., No. 5-97-0506 (September 30, 1998) (unpublished order pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 23 (166 Ill. 2d R. 23)). The case proceeded to a trial, and the jury returned a verdict for the defendant.

On appeal, the plaintiff argues (1) that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a new trial based on the posttrial discovery of a juror's misconduct and (2) that the trial court erred in refusing to allow the plaintiff to put on evidence of an alternative feasible design, both in his case in chief and in rebuttal.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Juror Misconduct

The plaintiff's first contention is that during the course of the trial one of the jurors conducted his own investigation concerning evidence crucial to the case, which presumptively prejudiced the verdict. On review, we determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in ruling that a new trial was not warranted by juror misconduct. See Waller v. Bagga, 219 Ill. App. 3d 542, 549, 579 N.E.2d 1073, 1077 (1991). We find that it did.

Before the presentation of any evidence, the trial judge admonished the jury not to undertake any personal investigation of the case. He ended by stating: "You must rely on the evidence you hear and see in this courtroom and the instructions and the law as I give them to you. Please do not go outside this courtroom for information in connection with this case." Nevertheless, in flagrant disregard of the court's detailed admonishment, one of the jurors, James Bartley, did exactly that-he undertook his own out-of-court investigation.

This fact came to the plaintiff's attention after the verdict but before the posttrial motions. The juror in question spoke privately with the trial judge regarding his conduct, after the plaintiff learned of it. The judge prepared a written statement summarizing the conversation. The statement was placed in the court file, and a copy was given to each of the parties' attorneys. For purposes of the posttrial motions, the parties stipulated as follows:

"One of the jurors, James Bartley, personally took to investigate riving blades during the trial of the case. This investigation purportedly included going to hardware[-]type stores to look at saws for sale[] and talking to a store clerk at one store, True Value ...


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