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Motter v. Everest & Jennings Inc.

decided: September 8, 1989.


On Appeal from Judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Civ. No. 87-4989.

Gibbons, Chief Judge, Hutchinson, Circuit Judge and Wolin, District Judge*fn*

Author: Wolin


WOLIN, District Judge

Portia Motter appeals from an order of the United States District Court that entered a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (judgment n. o.v.) in favor of appellee, Everest & Jennings, Inc. following a $700,000.00 jury verdict for Motter. The district court had jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 and we have jurisdiction in accord with 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Our review of the judgment n. o.v. grant is plenary. Because we are satisfied that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict, we will reverse the entry of judgment n. o.v. in favor of appellee and reinstate Motter's verdict.


Motter was employed as a nurse's aide at the Leader Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Harrisburg, where she, among other duties, provided showers to residents who were unable to shower or bathe themselves. To do so, Motter and her co-employees used an economy model shower chair that was designed and manufactured by Everest & Jennings.

On October 13, 1986 a patient, immediately following a shower and while waiting to be dried, pushed her feet against the floor. This caused the front casters of the shower chair to lift off the floor, whereupon the front left caster fell out of the chair leg. As the chair and patient tilted to the left, Motter, in order to avert patient injury, quickly positioned her left arm under the left arm of the shower chair. Consequently, Motter's left arm bore the full weight of the patient and the shower chair. Motter experienced severe pain in her left arm that radiated down into her left hand. She also felt pain in her neck and shoulder and at the base of her skull. She received emergency medical treatment at Community General Osteopathic Hospital. Dr. Gerald T. Turgeon, a neurologist, Dr. Robert R. Kaneda, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon, and Dr. Robert K. Jones, a neurosurgeon, provided follow-up care. The shower chair was removed from service and returned to the maintenance department for repair.

After an array of tests*fn1 and unabating pain in her left upper extremity, Motter returned to work at Leader on light duty status. She found that she was unable to perform even light duty work and is no longer working. Her doctors have concluded that Motter's use of her left upper extremity has been substantially impaired, that the pain in that extremity is permanent and that Motter is totally and permanently disabled from all nursing home work.*fn2

On August 10, 1987 Motter and her husband Lawrence filed a product liability suit against Everest & Jennings for personal injury she sustained in the accident. The complaint asserted alternate theories of negligence, strict liability and breach of warranty. Specifically, Motter alleged that the Everest & Jennings shower chair was defectively designed. She also alleged that the company was negligent in its caster-affixing method. (The breach of warranty claim was withdrawn at trial.)

A jury trial commenced on May 23, 1988. The parties proffered expert testimony relevant to the released caster. The assembly design of the shower chair provides for the caster to be inserted into the tubular shower chair leg, where it is held in place by a steel split O-ring. This split O-ring, when manufactured, is slightly larger than the inside diameter of the tubular steel leg. When the caster stem is inserted into the leg, the split O-ring compresses and exerts force against the inside of the tubular steel leg, thereby engaging the caster in place.

It was undisputed at the trial that the left front caster of the shower chair fell out of its tubular steel leg and was the cause of the accident. It was also undisputed that the caster should have remained in place. Everest further conceded that because of the shower chair's use in wet environments, the split O-rings were subject to corrosion and rust. Equally apparent at trial and uncontroverted was the fact that a user of the shower chair wasunable to determine the condition of the caster stems and the split O-ring by visual examination because of their location in the tubular leg unit.

Motter's design defect theory centered on the method of affixing the caster to the chair. Through expert testimony she reasoned that water permeated the space between the inner diameter of the tubular leg and the caster stem, causing a phenomenon known as crevice corrosion, which over a period of time caused the split O-ring to deteriorate; at a certain point of deterioration the split O-ring ceased to function and the caster fell out of the chair leg. Motter maintains that a split O-ring made out of brass or some other material less corrosive than the steel used by Everest would be more appropriate for the wet environment in which the shower chair is used.

Everest & Jennings countered the allegations of design defect by urging that the shower chair had undergone post-delivery changes, had suffered improper maintenance and had been misused.

The district court denied Everest & Jennings's motion for a directed verdict, after which the jury returned a verdict in favor of Portia Motter.*fn3


On review of the district court's grant of the judgment n. o.v. we must look to the record in order to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to sustain the jury verdict. National Controls Corp. v. National Semiconductor Corp., 833 F.2d 491, 495 (3d Cir. 1987). We must examine the record in the light most favorable to Motter and we may not sustain the entry of the order unless the record is devoid of the minimum quantum of evidence from which the ...

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