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Smith v. Crown Lift Trucks

May 16, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gerard E. Lynch, District Judge


Plaintiff Derven Smith brought this negligence action against Crown Lift Trucks, also known as Crown Equipment Corporation ("Crown"), contending that his injury in a forklift accident was due to Crown's negligence. The case was tried to a jury beginning on January 16, 2007, and on January 22, 2007, the jury returned a verdict for plaintiff in the amount of $1,040,664.49. Defendant now moves for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, a new trial, pursuant to Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Crown wisely does not challenge the jury's finding of its negligence. The jury could reasonably have found, by crediting the testimony of witness Thomas Leoce, a Crown employee at the time of the accident, that Leoce had deactivated the brakes of the fork lift and left it on the work floor of the warehouse where plaintiff was employed there without telling anyone at the warehouse that the machine was now brakeless (Tr. 142) - and that he later altered his report, on the instructions of his superior, to falsely indicate that he had warned the customer of the defect. (Tr. 146.) Instead, Crown seeks to avoid responsibility for the accident that predictably resulted by challenging the jury's verdict on proximate cause and on plaintiff's negligence, and by arguing that certain testimony relevant to damages should have been excluded. Crown also argues that the jury's award should be reduced. These arguments, with the exception of the last, are without merit.

I. Standards for Judgment as a Matter of Law Under Rule 50(b)

In ruling on a post-verdict motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), district courts must "consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, giving that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that the jury might have drawn in its favor." Madeira v. Affordable Housing Foundation, Inc., 469 F.3d 219, 227 (2d Cir. 2006). The court cannot itself "assess the weight of conflicting evidence, pass on the credibility of witnesses, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the jury." Diesel v. Town of Lewisboro, 232 F.3d 92, 103 (2d Cir. 2000). Judgment as a matter of law should be granted "only if there is such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's findings could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or such an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of the movant that reasonable and fair minded men could not arrive at a verdict against the moving party." Madeira, 469 F.3d at 227 (internal citations, alterations and quotation marks omitted). To the extent a party moves for a new trial, "[a] motion for a new trial ordinarily should not be granted unless the trial court is convinced that the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or that the verdict is a miscarriage of justice." Tesser v. Bd. of Educ., 370 F.3d 314, 320 (2d Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted).

II. Physical Impossibility of the Accident

First, Crown renews the argument it made to the jury that the accident as described by plaintiff was physically impossible, and that any negligence by Crown could not, as a matter of law, have caused Smith's injury, because Smith could not possibly have correctly attempted to use the defective brake. Crown attempts to prove that the brake was not activated by the following chain of inference.

If Smith's right foot was on the floor of the operator's compartment, Crown contends, the fork of the oncoming forklift could not have collided with Smith's right foot without also striking his left foot or the brake pedal of the forklift. (If the right foot is on the right pedal, it would be blocked from the incoming fork by either the left foot depressing the left pedal, or the left pedal, which sticks up if not depressed.) Thus, Crown argues, the injuries to Smith's right foot could only have occurred if the right foot was raised. (D. Reply. 3.) If the right foot was raised, Crown contends, then the brakes could not have been applied. The brake is applied by lifting the left foot off the brake pedal; if the right foot was raised (as Crown contends it must have been), then the left foot must have been flat on the brake pedal, because "a person has to stand on at least one of two legs." (Id.) Thus, Crown believes it has proven that the brake was never applied, which would mean that the failure of the brake did not cause the accident.

This argument was no more persuasive to the jury than it is to the Court. The jury observed an elaborate demonstration of the operation of the lift, conducted almost entirely by defendant according to the defendant's own protocol, in an effort to prove exactly the theory of impossibility that defendant now asserts. It was wholly within the province of the jury, which had a full opportunity to observe the relevant machines in operation that cannot be duplicated on a cold record, to assess this argument, and the jury rejected it. If the case had been tried to the bench, the Court would have reached the same result.

First, Crown's argument was not supported by any competent expert testimony. Crown called no accident reconstruction expert or neutral forklift engineer to support its impossibility theory. Instead, the claim of impossibility was entirely a speculative creature of defense counsel's summation, founded only on the forklift demonstration arranged by defendant, and on the testimony of Ron Brewer, a Crown employee, on the general design and operation of forklifts. Brewer was asked to opine on whether the incoming fork could have hit Smith's lowered right foot if the left foot was raised, but he was never asked to opine on the general plausibility of plaintiff's theory of the accident.

Second, Crown's hypothetical reconstruction of the accident imagines a fairly static or slow-moving occurrence; in reality, people and machines move in rapid and not necessarily predictable ways. It is possible to imagine a great number of things that could have happened in the instant of the collision. Smith may, for example, have attempted to lift both legs out of the way of the approaching forklift prongs by bracing his arms on the edge of the operator's compartment, which would lift both feet above the pedals and into the path of the forklift prongs. Smith could have done so in the split-second during which the accident occurred, after a correct attempt to apply the useless brakes. Even if Crown is correct that the brake was not being applied at the moment of the accident, Smith might well have tried to apply it shortly before the instant of the crash. A reasonable jury could well have accepted defendant's proposed chain of inferences, but it was surely not required to. In light of the Court's observations of the equipment, as demonstrated by Crown's employee, Crown's argument that it was impossible that the faulty brake could have caused the accident is eminently unpersuasive.

III. Plaintiff's Alleged Negligence

Crown's second argument is that the jury's decision to find no negligence on the part of plaintiff is against the weight of the evidence. Crown contends that it was negligent for plaintiff to operate the forklift at all without formal training, given that a warning label on the truck advised that no one should operate the truck "unless you are trained and authorized." (D. Mem. 8.)

It was again entirely up to the jury to evaluate this argument, using its own common sense. Again, it is no surprise that they did. Plaintiff's job involved operating the forklift. He operated it hundreds of times without incident, as his job required him to do, having a mishap only when defendant's negligence left him driving a vehicle that had no brakes. The jury saw the lift truck's operation demonstrated, and could easily conclude that no very elaborate training was necessary, or at least that plaintiff could reasonably have believed that he was "trained and ...

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