In State Auto Mutual Ins. Co. v. Chrysler Corp. (1973), 36 Ohio St.2d 151, 304 N.E.2d 891, for example, a new one-half ton pickup truck had been used for 77 days; the brakes failed because of a loss of brake fluid from a hole, with fibers blown outward, in a brake line which was original equipment and had not been tampered with; and the actual brake hose was unavailable, due to no fault of the plaintiff.Summary of this case from Friedman v. General Motors Corp.
Decided December 19, 1973.
Products liability — Contract to repair automobile — Failure to discover latent defects — Liability — Evidence — Plaintiff's burden of proof — Expert opinion testimony admissible, when — Automobile mechanic — Civ. R. 37 — Discovery — Failure to make discovery — No motion for order compelling compliance — Costs assessed against delaying party — No abuse of discretion.
1. In a case in which a party delays in the production of objects for inspection and fails to fully answer written interrogatories, the trial court does not abuse its discretion where it assesses the costs but refuses to enter a default judgment against such recalcitrant party, when the party moving for judgment does not exercise his remedies under Civ. R. 37. (Civ. R. 37, construed.)
2. In products liability cases involving defects in automobiles, the plaintiff's burden of proof consists of alleging and proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that: (1) There was, in fact, a defect in the product manufactured and sold by the defendant; (2) such defect existed at the time the product left the hands of the defendant; and (3) the defect was the direct and proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries or loss. ( Lonzrick v. Republic Steel Corp., 6 Ohio St.2d 227, approved and followed.)
3. One who contracts to repair an automobile is not liable for an alleged failure to discover a latent defect, unless the evidence shows that he undertook to discover such defect and negligently failed to do so. (Paragraph seven of the syllabus in Landon v. Lee Motors, 161 Ohio St. 82, approved and followed.)
4. Where an automobile mechanic, who specializes in the inspection, maintenance and repair of auto brake systems, and has seen ruptured brake hoses on 30 similar occasions, testifies that, in his opinion, the brake hose in question was ruptured in an "outward" manner and that such rupture was occasioned by a defect in the brake hose, and he is the only witness to examine the hose in question, such expert testimony is admissible, and it is prejudicial error for the trial court to exclude it.
APPEAL from the Court of Appeals for Hamilton County.
Plaintiff-appellant, State Auto Mutual Insurance Company, hereinafter referred to as appellant, is the subrogated collision insurer of plaintiff Gary C. Hess. On June 6, 1969, Hess purchased from defendant Anstaett Dodge, Inc., a new 1969 Dodge one-half ton pickup truck, manufactured by defendant Chrysler Corporation. An accident occurred on August 20 1969, due to an alleged brake failure, whereby the value of the vehicle was reduced by $2,354.67, $2,254.67 of which was paid by the appellant. At the time of the accident the vehicle had been driven in excess of 7,000 miles.
The evidence presented at the trial in the Municipal Court established that the right-front brake drum and linings of the truck were repaired by Anstaett Dodge on August 4, 1969, but that the repairs did not involve work on the right-front brake hose. Additional testimony established that the right-front brake hose had not been inspected during the course of repairs on August 4, 1969, but that the master cylinder fluid reservoir was inspected, and, at that time, it was full of fluid.
R.L. Crooks, an automobile mechanic experienced in the inspection, maintenance and repair of automobiles, testified that he had inspected the truck after the accident, at plaintiff's request, and found that the master cylinder fluid reservoir was empty; that the right-front brake hose had a hole in it at the end nearest the frame of the automobile; and that, in such a condition, the braking system would not work.
The trial court's findings of fact, based upon all the evidence, included a finding that there was a proper inference from the evidence that the accident was caused by the leakage of brake fluid from a hole in the right-front brake hose, and that this hose was original equipment on the vehicle.
At the conclusion of plaintiff's case, the trial court granted motions by each defendant for a directed verdict and entered judgment accordingly, determining that there was no evidence that the brake hose was defective, or that the hole was caused by either defendant, or that a defect (if the hole could be considered a defect) existed at the time the vehicle left the manufacturer or dealer, or that the hose or any part of the vehicle was defective in manufacture or design.
In so entering judgment, the trial court excluded certain testimony of the witness Crooks relative to a description of the hose after the accident and his opinion testimony as to the condition of the brake hose.
Upon appeal to the Court of Appeals, appellant assigned as error: The granting of defendants' motions for a directed verdict upon the basis that the evidence raised a permissible inference that the manufacturer's and dealer's warranties incident to the manufacture, sale and repair of the vehicle had been breached; the exclusion of the opinion testimony of the witness Crooks, and of the investigating police officer, David R. Noel; and the failure of the trial court to impose a meaningful sanction on the defendant Chrysler for its failure to properly and timely answer an interrogatory under Civ. R. 37.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the Municipal Court. The cause is now before this court, pursuant to the allowance of a motion to certify the record, upon the same issues assigned as error in the Court of Appeals.
Droder Co., L.P.A., and Mr. Albert T. Brown, Jr., for appellant.
Bloom Greene Co., L.P.A., Mr. J. William Duning, Messrs. Rendigs, Fry, Kiely Dennis and Mr. W. Roger Fry, for appellees.
Appellant propounds four propositions of law. The first three propositions deal with the degree of proof necessary to bring products liability actions within the purview of the jury for a determination as to the extent of the manufacturer's and dealer's liability under their warranty obligations and the proof necessary to establish liability for negligent repair. Appellant's fourth proposition relates to the trial court's discretion in imposing sanctions under Civ. R. 37. Since this latter issue is procedural and ancillary to the primary issue involved in this action, it will be disposed of first.
Appellant maintains that the trial court abused its discretion in not entering a default judgment against the appellees as a Civ. R. 37 sanction, since, appellant alleges, its interrogatories were evasively answered and its request for production under Civ. R. 34 was ignored for a considerable length of time.
Civ. R. 37 permits a party to move for an order compelling an answer, or an order compelling inspection in accordance with a request, and requires the court to award expenses to the moving party if the motion is granted. Civ. R. 37 also designates other sanctions and orders which the trial court may, in its discretion, make if a party fails to comply with a Civ. R. 37 order.
In this case, it appears from the record that appellant failed to move for such an order under Civ. R. 37. Further, it is apparent that appellant, in its motion for the production of objects for inspection, under Civ. R. 34, failed to designate any time period for response and inspection.
The trial court, confronted with those circumstances, and the later production during trial of a brake hose of doubtful identity, exercised its discretion and assessed costs against appellee Chrysler Corporation for its failure to fully answer the interrogatories and for the delayed presentation of dubious evidence. Also, the trial court offered appellant a continuance for the purpose of inspecting the brake hose in question, which offer appellant declined.
Those facts indicate an attempt by the trial court to insure fairness to all parties in the conduct of the trial. Appellant failed to avail itself of the remedies provided by the Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure and the trial court. There is no showing that the trial court abused its discretion in limiting its sanction to an assessment of costs against the appellee. Appellant's fourth proposition of law is, therefore, overruled.
In its first proposition of law, appellant contends that the failure of the braking system on a 77-day-old truck, due to the rupture of a right-front brake hose, raises a jury question as to whether the truck was defective when manufactured and/or sold.
The present case was brought upon the theory of strict liability. Appellant maintains in its brief:
"The time has come, in the slow and orderly development of the law of products liability in the state of Ohio, for this court to clearly enunciate the `practical equivalent of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur' to be applied in products cases."
In cases involving strict liability, the theory of plaintiff's case, proof of negligence is not required, and the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is applicable only insofar as it allows a jury to infer negligence once a plaintiff has met his burden of proof. Prosser, Law of Torts (4 Ed.), 673, Section 103. That burden of proof, as stated by this court in Lonzrick v. Republic Steel Corp. (1966), 6 Ohio St.2d 227, consists of plaintiff's alleging and proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that: (1) There was, in fact, a defect in the product manufactured and sold by the defendant; (2) such defect existed at the time the product left the hands of the defendant; and (3) the defect was the direct and proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries or loss.
The evidence admitted at trial establishes that the brake failure was caused by a leakage of brake fluid from a hole in the right-front brake line, which was original equipment on the vehicle and had not been tampered with. There was also evidence indicating that the hole had not been caused by the accident itself, but there was no evidence to indicate that the hole in the hose was not caused by some prior external force.
Professor Prosser, at page 672, points out that a defective condition may be proved by circumstantial evidence, where such evidence makes out a preponderance of probability that the accident was cause by a defect and not other possibilities, although it is not necessary in a civil action to eliminate all other possibilities. See, also, Vandagriff v. J.C. Penney Co. (1964), 228 Cal.App.2d 579, 39 Cal.Rptr. 671; Schafer v. Wells (1961), 171 Ohio St. 506, 511; and Landon v. Lee Motors (1954), 161 Ohio St. 82.
We conclude, therefore, that, even absent the testimony of the automobile mechanic, appellant introduced sufficient circumstantial evidence to avoid a directed verdict on the issue of the existence of a defect in the right-front brake hose at the time it passed out of the control of appellees. Accordingly, as to appellant's first proposition of law, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.
In regard to appellant's second proposition of law, that a prima facie case of negligent repair is presented by the failure of the right-front brake hose, 16 days after replacement of the right-front brake drum and shoes, there is no evidence in the record that appellee Anstaett Dodge had occasion or cause to examine the brake hose during the repair work on the drum and linings. The record indicates that the backing plate, to which the right-front brake hose was attached, had never been removed. The record also contains evidence that, during the repair work, the master cylinder fluid reservoir was found to be full, negating any reason to suspect leakage in the hoses.
Paragraph seven of the syllabus in Landon v. Lee Motors, supra ( 161 Ohio St. 82), states the applicable Ohio rule in regard to the liability of a dealer who undertakes to repair a motor vehicle:
"One who contracts to repair or service an automobile is liable for any damage proximately resulting from the negligent or unskillful manner in which he makes the repairs or performs the services, but such repairman is not liable for an alleged failure to discover a latent defect, unless the evidence shows that he undertook to discover such defect and negligently failed to do so."
The Court of Appeals is affirmed as to the second proposition of law.
Appellant's third proposition of law is that:
"Opinion evidence regarding the defectiveness of the specific part of a braking system which failed is not required to raise a jury question as to the failure of a truck to be fit for the purpose intended."
That proposition of law, as appellant states it, appears to relate both to appellant's prior argument that the failure of the breaking system of a new truck, in itself, raises a jury question of liability, and to the exclusion, at trial, of the opinion testimony of appellant's witnesses Noel, the police officer, and Crooks, the mechanic retained by appellant to examine the truck following the accident.
Insofar as appellant's proposition asserts that the testimony of Crooks, relative to a description of the allegedly defective brake hose, was improperly excluded by the trial court, we are in agreement.
The proffered testimony is as follows:
"Q. Mr. Crooks, based upon your observations, your experience and your knowledge, do you have an opinion as to the cause of the hole which you observed?
"Mr. Brown: Do you have an opinion?
"Mr. Crooks: Yes, yes.
"Mr. Brown: What is that opinion?
"Mr. Crooks: It had a defective brake line.
"Mr. Brown: Okay now, I'm afraid that's not responsive. The question is, do you have an opinion as to the cause of the hole?
"Mr Crooks: I said yes.
"Mr. Brown: Okay, and what caused the hole?
"Mr. Crooks: A rupture.
"* * *
"Mr. Brown: * * * based upon the same observations, experience and knowledge, do you have an opinion as to whether or not the brake hose, which you observed, was defective?
"Mr Crooks: Yes.
"Mr. Brown: And what is that opinion?
"Mr. Crooks: It had a rupture in it.
"Mr. Brown: Okay, and based upon the same observations, experience and knowledge do you have an opinion as to whether or not the rupture, which you observed, was the result of any defect?
"Mr. Crooks: Yes.
"Mr. Brown: What is that opinion?
"Mr. Crooks: The hose is swollen up and busted.
"Mr. Brown: Okay, and what is your opinion regarding the relationship of the hole which you observed to a defective condition of the hose?
"* * *
"Mr. Crooks: Well, the hole, it had been blown out — fibers blown out of it and swelling around the hole.
"Mr. Brown: And was that rupture the result of a defect in the hose?
"Mr. Crooks: Yes."
The general rule in Ohio in regard to opinion evidence is that the testimony of witnesses upon matters within the common observation and experience of mankind must be limited to statements of concrete facts within the witnesses' own observation, knowledge and recollection, as distinguished from their opinions, inferences, impressions and conclusions based on such facts. B. O. Rd. Co. v. Schultz (1885), 43 Ohio St. 270; Steamboat Albatross v. Wayne (1847), 16 Ohio 513; Southern Ohio Rd. Co. v. Morey (1890), 47 Ohio St. 207. See, also, 21 Ohio Jurisprudence 2d 405, Evidence, Section 400.
Exceptions to the general rule have been found to be, in some cases, necessary to the due administration of justice. An exception is given to "witnesses shown to be learned, skilled or experienced in a particular art, science, trade. or business" who, in a proper case, may be permitted to state an opinion on a given set of facts, where the jury would not generally be sufficiently familiar with such facts so as to be competent to draw inferences from such facts. B. O. Rd. Co. v. Schultz, supra; Cincinnati Mut. Ins. Co. v. May (1851), 20 Ohio 211; Hartford Protection Ins. Co. v. Harmer (1853), 2 Ohio St. 452; Crowell v. Western Reserve Bank (1854), 3 Ohio St. 406; Cleveland Pittsburg Rd. Co. v. Ball (1856), 5 Ohio St. 647; Massachusetts Life Ins. Co. v. Eshelman (1876), 30 Ohio St. 647; Shepherd v. Midland Mutual Life Ins. Co. (1949), 152 Ohio St. 6.
As a prerequisite to testifying, the expert must be sufficiently qualified, that is, it must appear that his opinion is based upon some superior knowledge not possessed by ordinary jurors. Bernius v. Hamilton County (1924), 2 Ohio Law Abs. 696; Pittsburgh, C., C. St. L. Ry. Co. v. Sheets (1912), 15 C.C. (N.S.) 305, affirmed, 87 Ohio St. 476; Cottom v. Klein (1931), 123 Ohio St. 440.
The test for determining the competency of an expert witness is stated in 21 Ohio Jurisprudence 2d 429, Evidence, Section 421, as follows:
"* * * his qualification depends upon his possession of special knoweldge which he can impart to the jury, and which will assist them in regard to a pertinent matter, which he must have acquired either by study of recognized authorities on the subject or by practical experience, and it must appear that he has an opinion of his own, or is able to form one, upon the matter in question."
The expert, however, must first testify as to facts which are within his own knowledge upon which his opinion is based. Clark v. State (1843), 12 Ohio 483 (overruled on another point in State v. Austin, 71 Ohio St. 317).
In the present case, the evidence established that the mechanic Crooks had specialized in the inspection, maintenance and repair of auto brake systems, and, among his other qualifications, he had seen ruptured brake hoses on 30 similar occasions.
It is further apparent from the record that the first objection to the line of questioning constituting Crooks' testimony was raised in response to this question asked by appellant's counsel:
"Now, what was the significance of your observation regarding the presence of fibers in the outward nature of this slit, Mr. Crooks?"
That line of questioning indicates an attempt by appellant's counsel to elicit an opinion from the witness to the effect that the brake hose had broken, or "rupture," from internal pressure rather than from external forces caused by the accident itself. The exclusion of the witness' answer was erroneous, since the witness had testified to having observed ruptured hoses on 30 different occasions, It is also not necessarily true that the jury could have drawn the same inference, since prior testimony had only elicited the statement that the hose:
"* * * had a slot in it with rubber busted, and it had fibers blown out of it.
"* * *
"Q. And the fibers were —
"A. Outward on it."
There was also other testimony by Crooks that the sides of this slot were pushed outward.
That evidence does not necessarily enable the jury, composed of average laymen, to raise the inference that internal pressure caused the hole, since the designs and functions of the various parts of braking systems are not ordinarily a familiar concept to the average juror.
Likewise, the absence of the brake hose in question for purposes of inspection by the jury makes Crooks' testimony, and the inferences to be drawn from it, more crucial. In a sense, Crooks was the only "expert" qualified to testify in this particular case, since he is the only witness who examined the hose in detail. This witness may not be qualified to testify as to the technical factors which may make a hose defective, for example, the chemical composition or thickness of the rubber and design of the fibers, inasmuch as such facts were not shown by the evidence to be within his own knowledge. However, in the absence of the hose at trial, he may testify as to facts which are within his knowledge regarding the hose.
Obviously, the most exact method of ascertaining a defect in the hose would be to subject the hose to scientific tests, under pressures applicable in an ordinary braking situation. In the absence of any direct evidence that the hose introduced by appellee Chrysler Corporation is the hose in question, this cannot be done.
Since a showing of the existence of a defect in the hose, in itself, invokes strict liability, the existence of a defect becomes the ultimate fact in this case. This court held, in paragraph three of the syllabus in McKay Machine Co. v. Rodman (1967), 11 Ohio St.2d 77:
"Expert opinion testimony is admissible as to an ultimate fact without infringing [upon] the function of the jury, if the determination of such ultimate fact requires the application of expert knowledge not within the common knowledge of the jury."
The witness Crooks has had considerable experience with braking systems and has observed defective and ruptured hoses on numerous other occasions. Due to his long experience he was able to state that the brake hose was original equipment on the vehicle and had not been tampered with. Such testimony was admitted by the trial court. To then exclude Crooks' opinion that the hose was defective, when this opinion was, in fact, based upon testimony as to the appearance of the hose, and his past experience with defective hoses, constituted an abuse of discretion by the trial court.
The absence of the brake hose, due to no fault of the appellant, renders the excluded testimony the only probative evidence of a defect in the hose, and its exclusion was prejudicial.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is, therefore, reversed in part and affirmed in part, and the cause is remanded to the trial court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.
Judgment reversed in part and affirmed in part.
O'NEILL, C.J., HERBERT, STERN, CELEBREZZE, W. BROWN and P. BROWN, JJ., concur.