United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
October 5, 2004.
CINDY TOUTANT, Plaintiff,
CROWN EQUIPMENT CORPORATION, Defendant.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: BLANCHE MANNING, District Judge
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
In this personal injury action based on diversity of
citizenship, plaintiff Cindy Toutant alleged that she injured her
back while operating a fork lift maintained and serviced by the
defendant Crown Equipment Corporation ("Crown"). After a jury
trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Crown. Before this
court is Toutant's motion pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 59(a)(1) for a new trial. For the following reasons,
Toutant's motion is denied.
To briefly recap, on June 19, 1998, Toutant was operating a
fork lift maintained and serviced by Crown. Toutant contends that
she injured her back after the fork lift, also known as a
stand-up rider reach truck, abruptly stopped while she was
executing a turn. On June 25, 1998, Crown responded to a service
call from General Warehouse, Toutant's employer, regarding a
grinding noise in turns during the operation of the reach truck.
Crown's service technician concluded that the reach truck's top
drive unit mounting bearing needed to be replaced. At no time
prior to this late June complaint did anyone from General
Warehouse complain about a grinding noise during the operation of
the reach truck. Toutant's expert, Myron Boyajian, testified that Crown was
negligent because it failed to diagnose and replace the drive
unit mounting bearing during service calls on June 2 and 3, 1998,
because the bearing unit had gone bad prior to these service
calls. Boyajian opined that when the drive unit shifted or was
cocked because of the failed unit bearing, the armature in the
motor rubbed against the pole shoes causing the abrupt stop which
occurred on June 19, 1998, causing Toutant's injury.
On the other hand, Crown's service mechanic testified that the
unit bearing did not fail before the June 2 and 3, 1998 service
calls. His testimony revealed that General Warehouses'
descriptions of the problems on June 2 and 3 and another service
call on June 23, did not involve and were not consistent with a
failed drive unit bearing. Crown's service mechanic further
testified that when unit bearing failure occurs, the reach truck
will continue to operate for approximately one to three hours
before the shaft of the motor snaps with no noticeable effect on
its operation other than a loud grinding noise from metal rubbing
on metal. As such, the grinding noise only occurs if the bearings
have failed or are bad. Finally, until the reach truck's cage
breaks, there is no noticeable effect while operating the reach
truck such as abrupt stops or jerking no matter how worn the
II. STANDARD FOR A MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL
In diversity actions, federal courts apply federal standards to
a motion for new trial. See McClain v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas
Corp., 139 F.3d 1124, 1126 (7th Cir. 1998). Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 59(a)(1) allows a district judge to grant a new
trial "for any of the reasons for which new trials have
heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the
United States." A motion for a new trial may be granted if the
verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence or if a prejudicial error occurred. See Bankcard
Am. v. Universal Bancard Sys., 203 F.3d 477, 480 (7th Cir.
2000). In considering whether a verdict is against the manifest
weight of the evidence, the court examines whether there is a
legally sufficient basis to support the jury verdict viewing the
evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, in
this instance defendant Crown. See Harvey v. Office of Banks &
Real Estate, 377 F.3d 698, 707 (7th Cir. 2004); Alverio v.
Sam's Warehouse Club, Inc., 253 F.3d 933, 939 (7th Cir. 2001).
When a party bases a motion for a new trial on an error of law,
the moving party must show that the error was substantial enough
to deny her a fair trial. See Perry v. Larson, 794 F.2d 279,
285 (7th Cir. 1986). Whether to grant a Rule 59(a) motion is
within the trial court's broad discretion. See Harvey,
377 F.3d at 707.
A. Manifest Weight of Evidence
Toutant first contends that the jury's verdict was against the
great weight of the evidence, and thus she is entitled to a new
trial. Toutant contends that she has established that Crown was
negligent based on Crown's failure to replace the drive unit
bearing prior to her injury on June 19, 1998. Toutant relies on
her expert's opinion that Crown failed to diagnose and replace
the drive unit bearing during service calls on June 2 and 3,
1998, and that the drive unit bearing had gone bad before these
service calls. Her expert, Myron Boyajian, opined that when the
drive unit shifted or was cocked because of the failed unit
bearing, the armature in the motor rubbed against the pole shoes
causing the abrupt stop which allegedly injured Toutant on June
Crown countered Mr. Boyajian's testimony with that of Crown's
service technician and road supervisor. Their combined testimony
included evidence that the complaints lodged before the reach truck allegedly stopped and injured Toutant did not
involve and were not consistent with a failed drive unit bearing.
Crown's service technician testified that until the cage which
holds the steel balls in the bearing unit breaks, there is no
noticeable effect on the operation of the reach truck, no matter
how worn the bearings are. The grinding noise, as complained of
after Toutant's injury, indicates that the bearings failed.
Further, Toutant testified that she did not hear any grinding
noises the day she was injured. Finally, the day that the service
technician replaced the failed drive unit bearing, which was
after Toutant's injury, the reach truck was still traveling and
the shaft had not broken.
Viewing this evidence in a light most favorable to Crown, the
court concludes that the jury was presented with a legally
sufficient basis to support their verdict that Crown was not
negligent. See Harvey, 377 F.3d at 707. There was a reasonable
basis in the record the testimony of Crown's service technician
and road supervisor for the jury to reach the conclusion that
the reach truck did not have a failed drive unit bearing at the
time it was inspected and serviced by Crown on June 2 and 3,
1998, and thus Crown was not negligent for failing to replace the
drive unit bearing prior to Toutant's injury on June 19,
B. Error of Law
Next, Toutant contends that this court committed a prejudicial
error in giving a special interrogatory to the jury because the
special interrogatory was misleading and ambiguous. See Mattson
v. Schultz, 145 F.3d 937, 939 (7th Cir. 1998) ("ambiguous,
biased, misleading or confusing questions may warrant reversal"). Under Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 49(a), special verdicts must accurately state the
relevant issues. See id. The formulation of special verdicts is
a matter within the district court's discretion. See id.
Toutant contends that the manner in which the special
interrogatory was phrased, specifically question number one,
required the jury to accept Crown's version of how the drive unit
bearing fails. The special interrogatory at issue states in
In addition to the forms of Verdict, you are also
being provided with a form of Special
Interrogatories, which reads as follows:
1. Did the stand-up lift truck have a failed drive
unit bearing at the time it was inspected and
serviced by Crown on June 2 and 3, 1998?
YES ____ NO ____
If you answer "no" to question no. 1, then sign this
special interrogatory and return it to the Court
together with your signed general verdict form. If,
however, you answered "yes" to question no. 1, then
answer question no. 2.
2. If you answered "yes" to question no. 1, did the
failed drive unit bearing cause the stand-up rider
lift truck to abruptly stop in the manner claimed by
plaintiff on June 19, 1998?
YES ____ NO ____
If you answered "no" to question no. 2, then sign
this special interrogatory form and return it to the
Court together with your signed general verdict form.
If, however, you answered "yes" to question no. 2,
then answer question no. 3.
3. If you answered "yes" to questions 1 and 2, was
the abrupt stop a proximate cause of the injury
claimed by plaintiff?
YES ____ NO ____
(See Docket Record Number 131, Special Interrogatory).*fn2
Toutant claims that question number one was ambiguous or
misleading. The court concludes, however, that the question
properly frames the relevant issue at hand It is Toutant's
theory that the drive bearing unit had already failed prior to
June 2 and 3, 1998, and thus Crown was negligent for not properly
repairing the reach truck at that time. As such, question one
asks whether the drive bearing unit had failed at the time Crown
serviced the reach truck on June 2 and 3. If so, Toutant's theory
that Crown was negligent for not properly servicing the reach
truck would stand If not, then Crown's theory that the drive
bearing unit did not fail until later in June 1998 would prevail.
In other words, the jury chose Crown's version of events when
answering "NO" to question number one. Had the jury answer "YES"
to question number one, they would have chosen Toutant's version
of the facts and continued to the second and third questions of
the special verdict.
In the American judicial system, it is the jury's role to weigh
the evidence and determine its credibility. See Minnesota Mining
& Mfg. Co. v. Pribyl, 259 F.3d 587, 606 (7th Cir. 2001) ("the
jury is the body best equipped to judge the facts, weigh the
evidence, determine credibility, and use its common sense to
arrive at a reasoned decision"). Juries listen and watch while
lawyers question witnesses, introduce documents, and present
arguments. See Bankcard Am., 203 F.3d at 480. After the jury
hears the evidence, the jury is asked to determine which party's
version is most likely true. See Appelbaum v. Milwaukee Metro.
Sewerage Dist., 340 F.3d 573, 581 (7th Cir. 2003) ("If the facts
were clear we wouldn't need a jury"). By accepting Crown's
version of the events over Toutant's, the jury did precisely what
it was required to do.
In sum, overturning a jury verdict is not done lightly. See
id. at 606. Because Toutant has not established that this court
committed a prejudicial error or that the jury verdict was against the great weight of the evidence, this court, in its
discretion, denies her Motion for a New Trial.
For the foregoing reasons, the court, in its discretion, denies
Toutant's Motion for A New Trial [R.135-1].