This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).

 

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

A03-1790

 

 

Brian Nelson,

Respondent,

 

vs.

 

The Stanley Works,

Appellant,

 

and

 

The Stanley Works,

Third Party Plaintiff,

 

vs.

 

Agri-Systems of Waterville,

Third Party Defendant.

 

 

Filed September 21, 2004

Affirmed

Robert H. Schumacher, Judge

Concurring specially, Halbrooks, Judge

 

LeSueur County District Court

File No. C902436

 

Charles T. Hvass, Jr., Hvass, Weisman & King, Chartered, 100 South Fifth Street, Suite 450, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent)

 

Linda S. Svitak, Amy R. Freestone, Faegre & Benson LLP, 2200 Wells Fargo Center, 90 South Seventh Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402-3901 (for appellant)

 

            Considered and decided by Schumacher, Presiding Judge; Anderson, Judge; and Halbrooks, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

ROBERT H. SCHUMACHER, Judge

            The Stanley Works appeals from the district court's denial of its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) or, in the alternative, for a new trial.  Stanley argues it was entitled to JNOV because the jury's finding of a manufacturing defect is not supported by the evidence and further argues it was entitled to a new trial because it was prejudiced by evidentiary errors.  We affirm.

FACTS

Respondent Brian Nelson was employed by Agri-Systems of Waterville.  Agri-Systems is engaged in the grain handling business, which includes erecting grain bins.  A grain bin is erected by stacking "rings" of metal sheets on a cement base with a roof welded to the top ring.  Each ring consists of five metal sheets that are bolted together along vertical seams to form a circle. 

In the summer of 1999, Nelson and another employee, Peter Groh, were sent to a local farm to assist the property owners in erecting a grain bin.  Nelson was working inside the bin putting nuts on the bolts as Groh pushed a bolt through each hole.   During this process Groh used a Stanley long-aligning punch to align the bolt holes.  As Groh and Nelson were working on a ring, the aligning punch broke.  A fragment struck Nelson in the eye.  Nelson was eventually taken to the Mayo Clinic, where emergency eye surgery was performed.     

            Nelson sued Stanley for strict liability in tort, alleging the aligning punch was unreasonably dangerous.  Agri-Systems was later added as a third-party defendant.  The two major issues at trial were whether Nelson should have been wearing safety goggles and whether the aligning punch was defective.  During the course of the trial, Nelson conceded that his only theory of strict liability was that the aligning punch contained a manufacturing defect, which caused the tool to break. 

            To prove the tool was defective, Nelson introduced two sets of manufacturing specifications for the aligning punch: the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) safety requirements for metal punches and drift pins, ANSI B209.2, and Stanley's manufacturing specifications.  Both specifications require specific areas of the aligning punch to have a certain level of hardness on the Rockwell C scale of hardness, but Stanley's specifications are more exacting than the ANSI specifications.

Nelson offered the expert testimony of John Brynildson.  Brynildson is a professional engineer who specializes in metallurgy and material engineering.  He testified that the higher a piece of metal scored on the Rockwell C hardness test, the more likely the metal is to break rather than bend when force is applied to the metal.  He also testified as to the likely reason this particular tool broke.  He noted that the break was a "[b]rittle looking fracture, very smooth."  He testified that he examined an "exemplar" tool of the very same make and model as the tool that injured Nelson.  He testified that the exemplar tool was softer than the broken tool and showed signs of bending.    

Brynildson testified to the protocol he used to test the hardness of the broken tool.  Under the protocol, the testing involved visual observations, chemical testing to determine the metal's composition, "macrohardness" testing, and a "microstructure analysis."  The microstructure analysis, after the results were converted to Rockwell C, returned a range from 57 to 59.  He testified that all ten of the numbers returned were higher than Stanley's manufacturing specifications.  He also testified that the microstructure testing produces "a more reliable reading because you're not just testing the surface."  When asked for his opinion on whether the broken tool contained a manufacturing defect, Brynildson stated:

The fact that it exceeded the hardness even specified in the Stanley spec, plus the fact that there was no deformation in the area of the fracture, that would indicate that this was not in the condition that it would make it reasonable to use.  So I would call it unsafe . . . I think, defectively manufactured.

 

Stanley questioned Brynildson on whether the readings from the microhardness testing could reliably be converted to Rockwell C, and specifically questioned Brynildson on the meaning of ASTM E18.  Brynildson responded, "You can't take like a Rockwell B into C to a Rockwell N.  You are working from different base materials.  You really can't make a correct conversion.  When it says special cases, that's talking about basically the microhardness and that's already been established what those conversions are."  Stanley had also moved the district court, in limine, to exclude all of Brynildson's testimony, but the court denied the motion.   

            The owner of Agri-Systems, John Jewison, also testified about his experiences with aligning punches as they were used to construct grain bins.   Jewison testified that he has personally repaired or built hundreds of grain bins.  Further, he had used aligning punches similar to the broken one, "all of [his] professional life" and had never had one break. 

Nelson also presented testimony from Bradley Meyer, a former Agri-Systems crew chief, regarding another aligning punch that broke shortly after Nelson was injured.  Meyer testified that he has worked for Agri-Systems from September 1989 until October 1999 and that prior to Nelson's injury he was unaware of an aligning punch ever breaking, although he had seen them bend.  He testified that the other aligning punch that broke as he was using it to align grain bin panels showed no signs of bending similar to the tool that injured Nelson.  The punch that broke when Meyer was using it, however, was discarded and not available at trial. 

Stanley had moved the district court to exclude all testimony related to the later aligning-punch fracture.  At the conclusion of a pretrial hearing, the court excluded testimony related to the second aligning punch, but was willing to permit Nelson to make an additional offer of proof regarding the second tool with Meyer's testimony.  On the second day of trial, the court reversed itself and allowed the jury to hear testimony on the second broken aligning punch, finding that both aligning punches were "manufactured in the same plant, . . . purchased at the same time, . . . used for the same purpose, and . . . substantially similar circumstances of aligning holes."

Stanley's own expert, Stephen Crosby, was called to testify whether the aligning punch was defective.  Crosby is Stanley's chief engineer for materials.  Crosby also performed a microhardness analysis.  He testified he performed the test because  it "was an opportunity to understand, again, from another source of information what might be going on in the part, in terms of the hardness variation."  He admitted that microhardness was "a valid hardness test" but "the only thing that might be called a weakness is if you're attempting to do a conversion.  It can only be approximate." 

The jury by special verdict found the aligning punch was in a condition unreasonably dangerous to the user because it contained a manufacturing defect and apportioned 40% of the fault for Nelson's injury to Stanley.  The jury also found Agri-Systems to be 40% at fault and Nelson to be 20% at fault.  Following the verdict, Stanley moved for JNOV, or in the alternative, a new trial.  The district court denied both motions and entered judgment in favor of Nelson for $250,049. 

D E C I S I O N

1.         Stanley argues the district court erred in not granting its motion for JNOV.  The standard of review is de novo because the district court grants a JNOV when the "verdict is manifestly against the entire evidence or . . . despite the jury's findings of fact, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."  Pouliot v. Fitzsimmons, 582 N.W.2d 221, 224 (Minn. 1998).  But "[w]here JNOV has been denied by the trial court, on appellate review the [district] court must be affirmed, if, in the record, there is any competent evidence reasonably tending to sustain the verdict."  Id. (quotation omitted). The jury's verdict should not be set aside "[u]nless the evidence is practically conclusive against the verdict."  Id. (quotation omitted).  "The evidence must be considered in the light most favorable to the prevailing party and an appellate court must not set the verdict aside if it can be sustained on any reasonable theory of the evidence."  Id.        

In order for a plaintiff to recover on a theory of strict liability, it must be proven:

(1) that the defendant's product was in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous for its intended use, (2) that the defect existed when the product left the defendant's control, and (3) that the defect was the proximate cause of the injury sustained.

 

Marcon v. Kmart Corp., 573 N.W.2d 728, 731 (Minn. App. 1998) (quotation omitted), review denied (Minn. April 14, 1998). Proof of a manufacturing defect is one method by which a plaintiff can demonstrate the manufacturer's product is defective.  See Restatement (Third) of Torts, Products Liability § 2 (1998) (stating product can be defective because of defect in manufacture, design, or warning). 

Stanley argues that the only inquiry relevant to establish that a product acquired a defect during the manufacturing process is how the product at issue compares to a "flawless product" built to the company's exact specifications and the evidence in this case is insufficient to support such a finding.  We disagree with Stanley on both counts.  First, the district court gave a case-specific adaptation of CIVJIG 75.30,[1] stating:

One who sells a product in a defective condition, unreasonably dangerous to the user is subject to liability for the physical harm thereby caused by the user of this property. 

 

            . . . .

 

            A defective condition may be the result of the manner in which the product was manufactured, inspected, or tested.  A product is in a defective condition, unreasonabl[y] dangerous, if it fails to perform reasonably, adequately and safely in the normal anticipated or specific use to which the manufacturer intends it to be put.  To state it differently, a product is in a defective condition, unreasonably dangerous if [it] presents any danger that would not be contemplated by the ordinary user who uses the product with the knowledge common to the community as to the product's characteristics and common use.

 

Because Stanley did not object to this jury instruction, the instruction defines what constitutes a defective product in this case.  See Furlev Sales & Assocs. v. North Am. Auto. Warehouse, 325 N.W.2d 20, 28 (Minn. 1982)(stating if jury instructions are not objected to at trial or in a posttrial motion, they become "the law of the case"); see also Bilotta v. Kelly, 346 N.W.2d 616, 622 (Minn. 1984) (stating an earlier version of CIVJIG 75.30 was formulated for inadvertent manufacturing flaws).  Thus, Nelson needed to show that the aligning punch failed to perform reasonably, adequately, and safely in the normal anticipated use for which the manufacturer intended the product to be used.  If the record contains such evidence, we will not set aside the jury's verdict.  See Pouliot, 582 N.W.2d at 224 (stating appellate court must not set the verdict aside if it can be sustained on any reasonable theory of the evidence).  

The jury heard testimony from multiple witnesses that the ordinary users of the aligning punch would expect the aligning punch to bend but not break when used to align bolt holes.  Jewison testified he had used aligning punches similar to the broken one all of his professional life and had never had one break.  Further, Meyer testified that he worked for Agri-Systems from September 1989 until October 1999 and that prior to Nelson's injury, he was unaware of an aligning punch ever breaking, although he had seen them bend.  This testimony supports the jury finding that the long aligning punch failed to perform reasonably, adequately, and safely in the normal anticipated use.  See Seidl v. Trollhaugen, Inc., 305 Minn. 506, 508, 232 N.W.2d 236, 239 (1975) (stating single witness's testimony is sufficient to support verdict).

Second, the jury was presented with evidence that the aligning punch did not conform to Stanley's flawless product.  Brynildson testified that the aligning punch's hardness under the microhardness analysis was harder than Stanley's specifications and that was the reason it broke.  Further, Stanley's own expert testified that the microhardness test results did not fit within its print requirements.  Viewing this testimony in the light most favorable to the verdict, we conclude that there is competent evidence to support the jury's verdict.  See Pouliot, 582 N.W.2d at 224.   

            2.         Stanley also argues that the district court erred in admitting Brynildson's testimony of the exemplar tool that bent and all reference to the second aligning punch that broke because the evidence was irrelevant and prejudicial.  The district court has discretion to admit or exclude evidence, and its rulings will not be reversed unless they constitute an abuse of discretion or are based on an erroneous view of the law.  TMG Life Ins. Co. v. County of Goodhue, 540 N.W.2d 848, 851 (Minn.1995). 

Stanley had filed motion in limine to exclude both Brynildson's testimony and all testimony regarding the second broken aligning punch.  Thus, Stanley has preserved both issues for appeal.  See State v. Litzau, 650 N.W.2d 177, 183 (Minn. 2002) (stating "party need not renew an objection to the admission of evidence to preserve a claim of error for appeal following a ruling on a motion in limine").   

Relevant evidence that is not prohibited by state or federal constitutions, statutory requirements, or by rules of evidence is admissible.  Minn. R. Evid. 402.  Rule 401 provides:  "'Relevant evidence' means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence."

   We first address the evidence of the second tool that broke shortly after Nelson was injured.  The testimony showed that the two aligning punches were purchased at the same time as part of the same box of tools, were used in the same manner, were manufactured at the same plant, and broke in a similar manner.  In light of the testimony of Jewison and Meyer that neither one had ever known an aligning punch to break, the fact that the second tool broke under the circumstances here is relevant to whether the first aligning punch broke because of a manufacturing flaw.  See Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 181 v. Celotex, Corp., 309 Minn. 310, 313, 244 N.W.2d 264, 266 (1976) ("Evidence of 'similar happenings' is relevant even if they occur after the injury or loss."); see also Charles T. McCormick, McCormick on Evidence § 185, at 647 (John W. Strong, et al. eds., 5th ed.1999) (noting probative value may change "depending on its relationship to the other evidence in the case")

Stanley also argues that Brynildson's testimony regarding the exemplar tool is irrelevant.  Brynildson testified that the exemplar tool was the very same make and model as the tool that injured Nelson and showed evidence of bending, which he stated a properly manufactured aligning punch should do.  The fact that the very same tool bent when the aligning punch at issue did not suggests it is more probable that the aligning punch at issue was manufactured to be too hard—a central issue in this case.  See id.  The testimony regarding the exemplar tool was relevant.

Stanley argues that both Brynildson's testimony and the testimony regarding the second aligning punch should have been excluded as unduly prejudicial.  Under Minn. R. Evid. 403, relevant evidence may be excluded "if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence."  Rule 403, however, "favors the admission of relevant evidence by requiring a determination that its probative value be 'substantially' outweighed by the dangers listed in the rule."  Id. at comm. cmt. 

The question before this court is not whether we would have ruled differently; rather, it is "for the [district] court to consider whether the probative value of the evidence was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice . . . and [an appellate court] will reverse only when the discretion of the [district] court has been clearly abused."  Wagner v. Thomas J. Obert Enters., 396 N.W.2d 223, 229 (Minn. 1986). Stanley asserts that the evidence was severely prejudicial or clearly confused and misled the jury.  We will not conclude a district court clearly abused its broad discretion based on mere assertions.  See State v. Modern Recycling, Inc., 558 N.W.2d 770, 772 (Minn. App. 1997) (stating assignment of error in brief based on mere assertion and not supported by argument or authority is waived unless prejudicial error is obvious on mere inspection).


We note that Stanley states that "what is most disconcerting" is the manner in which the district court admitted the evidence of the second broken tool because Nelson's theory of the case changed from that of a flawed tool to that of a flawed "batch."  A plaintiff's theory of the case changing after the defense's opening statement is a possibility in any trial and does not automatically result in prejudice.  See State v. Bland, 337 N.W.2d 378, 382 (Minn. App. 1983) (concluding criminal defendant not prejudiced when witness state referred to in its opening statement did not testify).    Additionally, Stanley had its entire case in chief and its closing argument, to rebut Nelson's "new" theory.  See Krein v. Raudabough, 406 N.W.2d 315, 320 (Minn. App. 1987) (concluding district court did not abuse its discretion in allowing respondent's closing argument because appellant's attorney "was free to balance any improper focus when he made his own closing argument to the jury"). 

Furthermore, at the time the district court admitted the evidence the court unambiguously provided that Nelson could offer additional proof to connect the second aligning punch and the one that injured Nelson.  Stanley could not have been unfairly surprised when the district court admitted testimony regarding the second broken aligning punch after Nelson offered additional proof.  See id. (stating district court properly admitted evidence when any unfair surprise was caused by appellant's failure to act on information within his possession).

Stanley also alludes to its inability to test the second aligning punch because Agri-Systems discarded the tool.  But Stanley does so only in passing, and admits, "the question ultimately rests on whether the admission of this evidence tended to prove or disprove a material fact in issue in this case."  Because Stanley has not made any argument that evidence of the second tool should have been excluded as a sanction for spoliation or how it was prejudiced by its failure to test the tool, we do not address the issue further.  See id.

Affirmed.  

 

 

HALBROOKS, Judge (concurring specially)

            I write separately because I conclude that the district court’s decision to admit evidence of a second accident involving an aligning punch that broke was an abuse of discretion.  But I concur with the majority’s decision because Stanley has not demonstrated that it was prejudiced by the improper evidentiary ruling. 

When this lawsuit was commenced, Nelson alleged multiple theories of product liability, including breach of warranty, design defect, and manufacturing defect.  In pretrial discussions about the admissibility of the subsequent accident, Nelson’s counsel argued that the evidence was relevant to the existence of a “manufacturing flaw” because the second accident showed “[t]his batch of tools is apparently a batch that got away from the manufacturer.”  There is no dispute that Stanley never had notice of the second accident or any opportunity to inspect or test the tool involved in that accident, as Nelson’s employer discarded it without advising Stanley.

On the third day of trial, the district court—in reversing its initial decision to exclude the evidence—stated that it was “reasonably certain” that the second aligning punch was from the same “batch” as the aligning punch that injured Nelson.  Nelson, however, concedes that there is no evidence that these two aligning punches were manufactured at the same time.  Without this showing, it is impossible to conclude that the two punches were from the same “batch.”  John Jewison, respondent’s employer, testified that he bought both punches at the same time.  But he never testified, nor would he have had foundation to do so, that the tools were from the same batch.  Nevertheless, Nelson’s counsel was permitted to call Brad Meyer, the employee involved in the second accident, and to question him concerning the tool’s failure.  The “same batch” argument was also a focus of Nelson’s counsel’s closing argument, who stated:

The best evidence in this case is Exhibit #11, is Brad Meyer . . . . 

 

. . . .

 

. . . What does our common sense tell us when two tools out of six in the new batch fracture in the same way and the only tool that we know is of the proper softness bends.  That’s all this case requires for you folks to decide these questions in favor of Brian Nelson’s claim.

 

            It is true that when a product-liability plaintiff claims injury arising from the substandard manufacture of a particular defective product, evidence that the product was part of a bad batch that failed to conform to specifications is relevant to show a defect.  See Smith v. Borg-Warner Corp., 626 F.2d 384, 387 (5th Cir. 1980) (observing that a plaintiff who claims to have been injured by reason of a manufacturing defect – a flaw in the product – may proceed upon a bad-batch theory); Garrelts v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., 943 F. Supp. 1023, 1059-60 (N.D. Iowa 1996) (stating that in a product-liability context, evidence is generally admissible to show that federal standards under which a license has been granted had not been met as to a particular batch of product).

But here, Brad Meyer’s testimony concerning the failure of the second punch after the accident that injured Nelson was unsubstantiated by independent record evidence establishing the coincident manufacture of the two tools or otherwise showing that the tools were in fact part of the same batch.  In its order denying Stanley’s motion for JNOV, the district court reasoned that Meyer’s testimony concerning the second tool was admissible under a bad-batch theory in part because the two tools broke under “substantially similar circumstances.”  But the nature of the fractures, augmented only by Meyer’s testimony, is insufficient to establish substantial similarity for the purposes of a manufacturing-defect claim.  Because Meyer’s testimony lacked a tendency to make the existence of a flaw in the manufacturing process more or less probable at the time the aligning punch that injured Nelson was manufactured, I believe that the district court erred in admitting the evidence.  See Minn. R. Evid. 402 (“Evidence which is not relevant is not admissible.”). 

But this court will not order a new trial based on improper evidentiary rulings unless that the challenging party demonstrates that it was prejudiced by the error.  Kroning v. State Farm Auto. Ins. Co., 567 N.W.2d 42, 46 (Minn. 1997).  An evidentiary error is prejudicial “if there is a reasonable possibility that the verdict might have been more favorable to the defendant if the evidence had not been admitted.”  State v. Bolte, 530 N.W.2d 191, 198 (Minn. 1995).  Here, two witnesses testified that before the present accident, neither had known an aligning punch to break when used to align bolt holes, which is an intended use of the tool.  Further, Nelson’s expert, Brynildson, testified that the aligning punch’s hardness exceeded Stanley’s manufacturing specification and the excessive hardness caused the aligning punch to break when it should have bent.  Stanley has not demonstrated how—in light of the evidence showing that the particular aligning punch that injured Nelson contained a manufacturing defect—the exclusion of the second accident would have resulted in a different verdict.  Therefore, I conclude that a new trial is not warranted. 



[1]          A product is in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to (the ordinary user or consumer) (the ordinary user's or consumer's property) if he or she could not have anticipated the danger the product created.

 

In deciding if the danger could have been anticipated, assume the user or consumer had the knowledge common to the community about the product's characteristics and common use.

 

The defect in the product may be caused by the way it was (manufactured) (assembled) (inspected) (packaged) (tested).  

 

4 Minnesota Practice, CIVJIG 75.30 (1999).