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Walker v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.

decided: June 19, 1969.


Waterman, Moore and Friendly, Circuit Judges.

Author: Moore

MOORE, Circuit Judge:

Ora A. Walker, a salesman of technical hydraulic equipment, was in Burlington, Vermont, on assignment in January 1967 when he was involved in a fatal automobile accident. His widow and executrix, Dorothy M. Walker, sued the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. (Firestone), among others, alleging in part that the accident occurred as a result of a defective tire manufactured by Firestone which is said to have suddenly deflated, causing the car to go out of control and strike a tree. The jury returned a $52,000 verdict in favor of the plaintiff and against Firestone and judgment was entered in that amount. Firestone appeals, contending that the trial court committed reversible error (1) in admitting Plaintiff's Exhibits 1 and 2; (2) in excluding questions directed at impeaching an expert witness called by plaintiff; (3) in excluding portions of a deposition; (4) in permitting improper cross-examination of a witness; (5) in charging the jury on the measure of damages; and (6) in failing to grant Firestone's motions for a directed verdict, for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial.

The accident out of which this suit arose occurred on January 26, 1967, on Route 7 in the Town of South Burlington, Vermont, at approximately 10 p.m. Apparently there were no eye witnesses since none testified. There is no dispute, however, that the car decedent was driving, traveling in a northerly direction, swerved sharply into the southbound lane, crossed the road, mounted a granite curbing and struck a large elm tree. No other car was involved in the accident and the decedent was the sole occupant of the car. The investigating officer identified tire marks leading to the tree as "wavery" and ruffled, but he declined to characterize them as skid marks. He also testified in his opinion that Walker's car was traveling at a high rate of speed at impact, giving as a conservative estimate 65 miles per hour. Estimates of other witnesses gave projected speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. There was substantial evidence showing, and the plaintiff concedes, that the decedent had been drinking prior to the accident. The amount of liquor he had consumed, however, was subject to vigorous debate during the course of the trial.

The granite curbing, mounted by decedent's car, was estimated to be eight inches in height and had sharp edges. In the car's trajectory to the point of impact, it also crossed over a flat concrete pad, lying beyond the curbing, three to four inches in height.

When the motor vehicle was examined after the accident, both left tires, front and back, were deflated and the rims of both wheels were bent. In order to tow the car away, the damaged left rear tire had to be removed and replaced by the spare. This was done and the wheel removed was placed in the back seat of the car. It was not necessary to replace the front left tire which was also deflated since the car was towed with its front end up. Although the plaintiff claims that the accident was caused by the defective left rear tire, the damage to both rims was similar.

Two to five days later, the tire and wheel which had been placed in the back seat of the car disappeared from the car. Plaintiff's Exhibits 1 and 2, a tire and rim, similar to those on the front of the motor vehicle, were introduced at trial over the strenuous objection of Firestone. The objection related to the validation of the exhibit. The plaintiff's entire case on Firestone's liability was predicated on the claim that the left rear tire suddenly deflated, due to a manufacturing defect, causing the car to go out of control and to strike the tree.

Firestone claims that the tire and rim were erroneously admitted because the plaintiff had completely failed to identify them as being the identical tire and rim on the car at the time of the accident. And even if identify had been proven, Firestone argues, there was an absence of proof showing that there had been no substantial change in the condition of both between the time of the accident and the commencement of the trial.

Identification of the rim and tire was somewhat unusual in that the investigating officer's testimony, which was used as a foundation for the exhibits, was slightly equivocal. Nonetheless its admission was within the discretion of the trial judge. The officer, Louis Delillo, comparing the proffered exhibits with photographs taken at the scene of the accident, did make an identification of the Plaintiff's Exhibits 1 and 2 as coming from decedent's car. Although he later backed away from this identification, he did state, in viewing the photos and the exhibits, "it is the rim of the car of the accident I investigated and it is a snow tire." In response to the question by plaintiff's counsel "you are quite sure about the rim, are you, the rim does appear to be the same?," he answered "According to the picture, yes, in comparison to the picture in that rim there, yes."

There were also other facts supporting the admissibility of the exhibits. The owner of the service station who installed two of the snow tires on the car in question testified he had purchased numerous tires of the size and style of Plaintiff's Exhibit 1 and had, in fact, mounted two on decedent's car. The tow truck driver, who had removed the left rear tire from the car prior to pulling it from the scene of the accident, testified that the tire and rim appeared to be the same.

In regard to the claim that plaintiff offered no proof that there had been no material change in the condition of the exhibits, the tire and the rim, being from a car which had been driven only 35 miles at the time of the accident, were not subject to easy alteration. While it is true that the plaintiff cannot bootstrap herself by having the defendant introduce evidence tending to validate the admission of the evidence, see McCormick on Evidence at 129-130, the defendant did make the argument during trial that the front and back left tires deflated when they hit the granite curbing and that the damage to the front left rim was very similar to the damage to the back left tire rim, implying that no substantial change had in fact occurred between the accident and the trial.

The cases cited by Firestone to the contrary deal with situations where the admission of evidence was held to have been error because the evidence was easily alterable. In Sears Roebuck & Co. v. Daniels, 299 F.2d 154 (8th Cir. 1962), cited by appellant, it was held that it was not error to exclude evidence offered by the defendant where the defendant admitted it might not be the same, although it was just like the item in question. But while it might not have been error for the trial court to have excluded the tire and rim, because of insufficient identification, the inquiry is whether the trial judge committed error by admitting them. In fact, had we been the trial judge, because plaintiff failed to introduce other evidence explaining how the tire and rim had gotten into her counsel's hands, we might very well have ruled that they were not admissible and that an adverse inference was to be drawn on account of that failure. Yet the trial judge has wide discretion on preliminary issues of admissibility -- including the identity of articles offered in evidence. Here, although we are not without some doubt on the matter, there does seem to be support for his conclusion.

Firestone's liability was largely predicated on the claim that due to a manufacturing defect, the left rear tire deflated while decedent was driving along Route 7, causing his car to swerve into the tree. In support of this contention plaintiff called Andrew James White, allegedly an expert on the reconstruction of accidents. It was White's view, after examining the tire and the rim, that there was an excess of rubber situated on the toe of the bead of the Firestone tire and that this asserted defect allowed the bead of the tire to become unseated and caused the tire to go flat while the car was in operation. The toe of the bead is apparently a portion of the tire that comes into contact with the rim. Since the question of causation of the accident was crucial, it would not be an overstatement to characterize plaintiff's case as relying primarily on White's testimony and credibility.

Firestone vigorously attempted to attack White's credibility. On cross-examination, White was questioned on his educational background; he testified he graduated from the Ringe Technical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had one year at Suffolk Law School. On further inquiry, White admitted that Ringe Technical School was a public high school. Firestone's attorney then tried to bring out that in a prior but unrelated New Hampshire case White had testified that the school was other than a public high school. The Court excluded the question as immaterial. In response to the question of how many patents White had, White stated he had 18 patents. Firestone then inquired whether he had testified in the New Hampshire action that he had over 90 patents. This question was also ...

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