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Sunday
Aug092009

Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, and a Caterpillar

By Noah Patterson

In Martinez v. Caterpillar, Inc., the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court for the District of New Mexico’s judgment in favor of the defendant-respondent Caterpillar, Inc. (“Caterpillar”).  The plaintiff-appellant Andrew Martinez (“Martinez”) brought a negligence and strict products liability action against Caterpillar.  Martinez appealed the jury decision, arguing that the district court inadequately instructed the jury by providing instructions that Caterpillar could not be liable if the machine’s condition substantially changed before the accident and by failing to provide instructions directing that Caterpillar was required to give adequate instructions for the machine’s use.

The incident underlying the action occurred on a hot, summer day in June 2005.  A crew of county workers was using a motor grader to improve a road close to Martinez’s home.  Martinez set up a grill near the road, preparing hot dogs and hamburgers for the crew.  When one of the motor grader’s tires went flat, Martinez attempted to help the crew inflate the tire.  In the process, parts of the wheel assembly separated with force, inflicting serious injuries on Martinez.  Apparently, the wheel assembly’s lock ring had previously disconnected (possibly when the tire went flat), allowing the forcible separation of the wheel assembly to occur.

While Caterpillar’s tires did not contain warnings or disclaimers of any sort, the motor grader’s cab featured the following warning: “Do not operate or work on this machine unless you have read and understand the instructions and warnings in the operation and maintenance manuals.”  The manual contained a provision which stated the following: “Servicing tires and rims can be dangerous.  Only trained personnel that use proper tools and proper procedures should perform this maintenance.”

The district court “instructed the jury that Caterpillar could not be held liable if Mr. Martinez’s injury was caused by a condition of the motor grader which constituted a substantial change from the condition in which Caterpillar could reasonably have expected the grader to be used.”  Martinez argued “that the loss of the lock ring does not constitute a substantial change; or if it [did], that the change was foreseeable and therefore [did] not absolve Caterpillar of liability.”  Martinez also objected to the district court’s failure to provide instructions directing that Caterpillar was required to give adequate instructions for the machine’s use.

The Tenth Circuit upheld the district court’s judgment.  Because the “lock ring is a crucial safety device that would have prevented the tire assembly from separating,” the court of appeals concluded that “sufficient evidence” had been presented to demonstrate that the loss of the lock ring constituted a substantial change. Additionally, the court of appeals found the record to demonstrate that “Caterpillar could not reasonably have expected that someone would attempt to inflate the motor grader’s tires without the lock ring in place.”  Thus, because “evidence supported an inference that the motor grader’s condition had substantially changed, and that the change was relevant to the accident,” the district court did not abuse its discretion by giving this instruction.

As for Martinez’s second objection, the court of appeals found that other instructions that the district court gave “covered similar ground as an instruction on directions for use would have covered.”  So, “the district court did not abuse its discretion in failing to instruct the jury on directions for use.”  The Tenth Circuit thus upheld the district court’s jury instructions, affirmed the district court’s judgment, and provided further support for the maxim that hamburgers, hot dogs, and caterpillars should not be mixed.