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A worker injured on the job at a Staples office supply store is entitled to a new trial addressing both liability and damages because the trial court’s jury instruction was misleading, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has ruled. The court also deemed the $33,000 in damages awarded the plaintiff “inadequate,” because the verdict did not qualify as a compromise verdict. “The significant possibility of jury confusion in the instant case is precisely the type of confusion our supreme court sought to avoid by strictly adhering to sharp distinctions between strict liability and negligence principles,” said the panel in Gary Guy, Jr. v. Taylor-Dunn Manufacturing Co. and Penn Valley Industrial Service, Inc. in an unpublished memorandum opinion filed Jan. 10. The case came before Judges Michael T. Joyce and Maureen Lally-Green and Senior Judge Phyllis W. Beck. “Under the unusual circumstances presented by this case, we are constrained to conclude that the new trial must concern liability and damages.” PLAINTIFF’S INJURIES Gary Guy was injured in 1995 when a ladder on which he stood while at work broke free from a “stockchaser,” a golf-cartlike vehicle used to reach goods stored above the selling floor. At the time of the accident, Guy was 25 years old and had never suffered shoulder pain, according to the opinion. The accident involving the stockchaser required three surgeries that left a surgical scar; Guy also lost function in his right arm, impacting his ability to perform household chores, sports and activities with his 4-year-old daughter, as well as his own personal care. The accident also left him with chronic right arm and shoulder pain that necessitated medication three or four times a week. Guy eventually returned to a more light-duty position at Staples after missing time from work, but he still needed assistance from co-workers to do his job. The injuries Guy claimed were “moderately contested, if at all,” according to the court, noting that counsel for defendant Penn Valley instructed the jury to find that Guy was telling the truth with regard to his injuries. Guy brought a strict liability action against the Taylor-Dunn Manufacturing Co., the maker of the stockchaser. He alleged the vehicle was not designed to prevent detachment of the ladder during its reasonably foreseeable use. Penn Valley Industrial Service Inc., which inspected, maintained and repaired the stockchaser, was also named as a defendant. Penn Valley joined Ace Welding Service Inc., a company it contracted with to perform welding on the stockchaser. Ace won a directed verdict in its favor at trial. VERDICT INADEQUATE; NO COMPROMISE Despite the fact that Guy’s out-of-pocket expenses exceeded $50,000 — more than $27,000 in medical expenses and more than $24,000 in lost wages — the jury awarded damages of just $33,000. The trial court said a new trial was unwarranted because the verdict was a “compromise.” A “compromise verdict” would allow the jury to return a verdict for the plaintiff, but for a lesser amount than it would have if it were free from doubt about the defendant’s negligence or plaintiff’s contributory negligence. A low verdict would be acceptable in that case because it would not be intended to be “adequate” in the sense of being reasonably related to the damages proved, the court said. But the appeals panel was unconvinced that the verdict in Guy’s trial fit this model. “The jury was not specifically asked to address the contributory negligence (if any) of [Guy]. Moreover, the jury did not suggest that [Guy] was contributorily negligent. In fact, 100 percent of the causal fault was attributed to Penn Valley,” the court said. “Upon review of the record, we are constrained to conclude that the verdict in the instant case is not a compromise verdict … [and that] … the trial court committed an error of law when it found that the verdict can be explained as a possible compromise.” The court said the jury also violated the rule set forth in Davis v. Mullen — a 2000 Superior Court case — because it “effectively award[ed Guy] nothing for pain and suffering, even though it is undisputed that [Guy] underwent three surgeries for a painful injury.” The Daviscourt held that an award of medical expenses without a corresponding award for pain and suffering is inherently inconsistent. CONFUSION OF ISSUES The jury rendered a verdict that the Superior Court found difficult to reconcile. Specifically, the jury found that Taylor-Dunn’s stockchaser was defective, yet found that the defect was not a substantial factor in causing the accident. It also found Penn Valley negligent and said that negligence was a substantial factor in causing Guy’s accident. The ambiguous result was a product of the trial court’s charge to the jury, the court said, because the instructions “repeatedly interspersed negligence principles with products liability principles.” In one example given in the opinion, the trial court told the jury, “In order for a plaintiff to recover against Taylor-Dunn and also Penn Valley, plaintiff must prove that the negligence was a substantial factor in causing the harm.” In this strict liability action, the court also told the jury it would need to apportion fault between defendants and that the figures “must come up to a hundred percent.” The Superior Court panel concluded the trial court’s charge was “unclear as to a material issue. … The court repeatedly equated causal fault with negligence or carelessness. Thus, the jury may have come to the erroneous conclusion that it must find Taylor-Dunn negligent or careless in order to impose liability on Taylor-Dunn.” Even if the jury was not confused and simply chose not to impose liability on Taylor-Dunn because it believed any product defect wasn’t a substantial factor in causing Guy’s injuries, the relevant standard was still whether the jury charge might have prejudiced Guy, the panel said. “Our supreme court has repeatedly stressed that ‘negligence principles have no place in a strict products liability action,’ in part because ‘the crucial difference between strict liability and negligence is that the existence of due care, whether on the part of the seller or the consumer, is irrelevant.” The deterrent effect of imposing strict liability standards would be weakened if they could be defeated — or recoveries could be reduced — using negligence concepts, the court said. “Given the fact that the charge was confusing and misleading as a whole, we conclude the charge might have prejudiced [Guy] by leading the jury to exonerate a responsible party. In order to properly assess the percentage of liability between both defendants, a new trial involving both parties is necessary.”

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