Lynda Gayle Schmitt, et al.,
Daniel B. Johnson, Alan R. Nettles, Meyer & Njus, P.A., 1100 Pillsbury Center, 200 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for appellant)
Richard L. Pemberton, Jr., Kerry M. Evensen, Christopher J. Schulte, Meagher & Geer, P.L.L.P., 4200 Multifoods Tower, 33 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondents)
Considered and decided by Harten, Presiding Judge, Crippen, Judge, and Davies, Judge.
Appellant, the trustee for the estate of a motorist killed in a vehicular collision allegedly caused by a defective livestock trailer, challenges the district court's grant of an adverse directed verdict in his wrongful death action. The district court held that respondent did not have a duty to inspect the trailer for defects. We affirm.
At trial, appellant contended that a weld in the trailer's "goose-neck" connection to Langanki's truck was defective and that the weld failed when Langanki first braked. Appellant contended that when the weld failed, the connection severed the truck's brake line, and prevented Langanki from avoiding a collision with Iverson. Appellant alleged that Schwartz was negligent for failing to properly inspect, maintain, and repair the trailer.
Previously, in April 1994, Pick's Manufacturing and Welding had repaired the trailer's brakes and lights. Langanki testified that he instructed the Pick's employees to "get [the trailer] so everything was legal" but he did not explicitly ask them to inspect the trailer. It took "some time" for Pick's to complete the work and several employees worked on the trailer, but no Pick's employee said anything about any problem with welds on the trailer.
The district court held that Schwartz did not have a duty to inspect the trailer for defects and directed a verdict for him. This appeal followed.
1. Statutory Duty
Appellant asserts that Schwartz had a duty under state and federal law to inspect the trailer. Statutory interpretation is subject to de novo review. Bol v. Cole, 561 N.W.2d 143, 146 (Minn. 1997).
a. State Law
A "private carrier" is a person engaged in the transportation of property or passengers by motor vehicle when the person transporting the property or passengers is engaged in a business other than transportation and the transportation is within the scope of and furthers the person's primary business. Minn. Stat. § 221.011, subd. 26 (1996). Private carriers operating vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of more than 10,000 pounds in Minnesota must comply with inspection, repair, and maintenance rules. Minn. Stat. § 221.031, subd. 2(a)(5) (1996).
The district court ruled
as a matter of law that this is not a private carrier nor is it subject to interstate commerce inspection requirements. I'm not satisfied that there are any facts that would merit that type of requirement. This is a trailer owned by an individual farmer who lets his neighbor use it and his neighbor periodically takes some of his cattle and some of the neighbor farmer's cattle to market. Clearly not a carrier under the statutory definition nor under the interstate commerce.
We agree that the state statute does not apply to Schwartz. The statute refers to the entity actually doing the transporting, not the owner of the vehicle. Moreover, to apply to Schwartz, the transportation must further his business. Langanki's use of the trailer to transport a third farmer's cattle to the stockyards did not further Schwartz's business.
b. Federal Law
A trailer owner is subject to federal inspection requirements if the owner is a motor carrier engaged in interstate commerce. 49 C.F.R. § 396.3 (1997). "Interstate commerce" includes transportation between a place in one state and a place outside of that state (including a place outside the United States) and transportation between two places in one state through another state or a place outside the United States. 49 C.F.R. § 390.5 (1997).
Whether transportation is interstate or intrastate is determined by the essential character of the commerce, as evidenced by the shipper's intent at the time of the shipment, and is ascertained from all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the transportation. Southern Pac. Transp. Co. v. I.C.C., 565 F.2d 615, 617-18 (9th Cir. 1977) (a shipping of goods from canning plant to warehouse within same state for holding pending eventual transportation to undetermined destinations--interstate, intrastate, or foreign--held to be intrastate). Transportation of goods within a state is not interstate until the goods are shipped to another state or are started on such a route in a continuous route or journey. N.Y. Central R.R. v Mohney, 252 U.S. 152, 155, 40 S.Ct. 287, 288 (1920).
Here, Langanki's only intent was to transport cattle entirely within Minnesota to the South St. Paul stockyards for sale. Whether cattle buyers would take the cattle ultimately to locations out of state does not change the intrastate character of Langanki's transportation of the cattle to the stockyards. There was no evidence of the ultimate destination for the cattle. We conclude that the transportation was not interstate and the federal inspection requirements do not apply.
2. Common-law Duty
At common law, if a motor vehicle owner knows of a defective condition in the vehicle that would render it unsafe for a user, the owner is obligated to warn the user of the hazard, but the owner owes no duty of prior inspection or repair. Olson v. Buskey, 220 Minn. 155, 158, 19 N.W.2d 57, 59 (1945).
Schwartz had no common law duty to users or the general public to inspect his trailer for unknown defects; he is a mere owner whose duty extended only to known defects. The common law does not require Schwartz to submit his trailer to inspection in the absence of knowledge that the trailer is defective. And the record contains no evidence that Schwartz knew of any defect in the trailer. Accordingly, there was no basis to submit the question to the jury, and the district court correctly directed a verdict for Schwartz.
3. Evidence Excluded
Appellant alleges that the district court erred in excluding expert testimony from six of appellant's witnesses. The decision whether to exclude expert testimony lies within the district court's discretion whose decision will not be reversed on appeal unless it is based on an erroneous view of the law or constitutes an abuse of that discretion. Hempel v. Fairview Hosps. & Healthcare Servs., Inc., 504 N.W.2d 487, 490 (Minn. App. 1993). Further, before erroneous exclusion of evidence may be the basis for a new trial, it must appear that the exclusion was prejudicial, that is, the evidence might reasonably have changed the result of the trial if it had been admitted. Covey v. Detroit Lakes Printing Co., 490 N.W.2d 138, 143 (Minn. App. 1992).
a. Vehicle inspector Wesley Pemble
The district court excluded Pemble's testimony opining that the trailer was a commercial vehicle subject to federal or state requirements. Legal analysis by an expert is ordinarily inadmissible. Behlke v. Conwed Corp., 474 N.W.2d 351, 359 (Minn. App. 1991), review denied (Minn. Oct. 11, 1991). The district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding Pemble's testimony.
b. State trooper William Leasman
Appellant did not offer any testimony from Leasman after the district court issued an order stating that "any opinion testimony regarding the applicability of interstate commerce standards by Trooper William Leasman shall be excluded." The district court did not abuse its discretion in disallowing expert opinion construing federal regulations.
c. Other Witnesses
The testimony of appellant's other four witnesses and one of Schwartz's witnesses was not relevant to the question of duty. Because our conclusion thatSchwartz did not have a duty to inspect his trailer is dispositive, we need not address the evidentiary issues regarding these other witnesses.