ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. Civil No. 75-2499)
Before Seitz, Chief Judge, and Gibbons and Higginbotham, Circuit Judges.
This is a products liability case in which the plaintiff alleges she was injured when the door of a freight elevator in her employer's workplace prematurely closed and struck her. The plaintiff instituted an action against Otis Elevator Company, the designer, manufacturer and installer of the elevator; Hartford Insurance Group, which, as the insurer of the premises, had the statutory obligation*fn1 either to inspect the elevator or to choose a licensed firm to perform such inspections; and Atwell, Vogel & Sterling, Inc., ("AVS"), which had been hired by the Hartford Insurance Group to perform the inspections. The plaintiff's employer, Western Electric Company, was joined as a third-party defendant.
The central thesis of the plaintiff's case was that the freight elevator was in a defective condition because, by reason of improper design, manufacture and installation, the buttons or switches controlling the doors could be activated inadvertently and "they protruded beyond the wall and had no guards to prevent . . . accidental pushing . . ."*fn2 She thus claimed liability against Otis on the grounds of strict liability, breach of warranty and negligence and against Hartford and AVS on the grounds of negligence. At the close of the plaintiff's case on liability, defendants' motions for directed verdicts were granted. The plaintiff appeals from the orders directing verdicts for each defendant and also challenges two evidentiary rulings by the district court. The first of these was the district court's refusal to admit evidence against Otis of repairs made to the elevator by Western Electric Company subsequent to the accident. Second, the plaintiff challenges the district court's refusal to allow her expert witness to give an opinion on whether the elevator was defectively designed. We affirm the order directing verdicts for defendants Hartford Insurance Group and AVS. We also affirm the district court's ruling that excluded testimony of subsequent repairs. We reverse the directed verdict for Otis Elevator Company and we hold that the district court improperly excluded the expert's testimony on defective design.
On an appeal from a directed verdict for the defendant, we must examine the record in a light most favorable to the plaintiff and "determine whether, as a matter of law, the record is critically deficient of that minimum quantum of evidence from which a jury might reasonably afford relief." Denneny v. Siegel, 407 F.2d 433, 439 (3d Cir. 1969). Because a directed verdict motion deprives a party of jury fact-determination, we have recognized that "it should be granted sparingly and circumspectly." Patzig v. O'Neil, 577 F.2d 841, 846 (3d Cir. 1978).
The district court gave the following reason for directing verdict for Otis:
". . . (A)s to 402A, the record is absolutely devoid of any competent evidence proving a design defect in the construction of this elevator as originally designed and installed."
The trial judge's conclusion that the record was devoid of competent evidence to establish a design defect depends on whether his ruling precluding certain expert testimony was correct. Thus we must first examine the rulings precluding certain portions of the proffered expert testimony.
1. Expert Testimony Issue
Knight assigns as error the district court's refusal to permit Emerson Venable to testify as an expert on whether unguarded elevator control buttons constituted a design defect. Absent an abuse of discretion, we will not interfere with the district court's decision on an expert's competence to testify. Universal Athletic Sales Co. v. American Gym, Recreational & Athletic Equipment Corp., 546 F.2d 530, 537 (3d Cir. 1976), Cert. denied, 430 U.S. 984, 97 S. Ct. 1681, 52 L. Ed. 2d 378 (1977). We must nevertheless assess the district court's ruling in light of the liberal policy of permitting expert testimony which will "probably aid" the trier of fact. Id.
When making his ruling to preclude certain aspects of proffered testimony by Venable, the trial judge commented as follows:
Direct and extended cross-examination regarding the witness' qualifications establish a background in engineering with special reference to chemistry and safety, including machine guarding, toxicology and industrial hygiene.
He has designed machine guards on occasions which he cannot detail, and in at least one instance had designed guard buttons in connection with the operation of a punch press.
While he contends he has been consulted on certain elevator claims, he has been unable to relate any precise details as to the nature of the claims, their time ...