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General Motors Corporation v. Pegues

December 08, 1998

GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION APPELLANT
v.
JIMMY PEGUES APPELLEE



Before Bridges, C.j., Hinkebein, And King, JJ.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bridges, C.j.

DATE OF JUDGMENT: March 25, 1996

TRIAL JUDGE: HON. GEORGE C. CARLSON JR.

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: PANOLA COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT

NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - PERSONAL INJURY

TRIAL COURT DISPOSITION: JIMMY PEGUES WAS AWARDED DAMAGES TOTALING $3,529,600.

DISPOSITION: AFFIRMED

¶1. Jimmy Pegues, a resident of Panola County, Mississippi, was involved in an automobile accident on April 27, 1986. Pegues argued that a defective ball joint on a 1982 Chevrolet pickup truck broke, causing him to lose control of the vehicle, leave the roadway, and crash into a concrete box culvert resulting in severe disabling injuries, including but not limited to, the amputation of his left leg. General Motors (GM) argued that the ball joint broke only after impact, and that Pegues's drunk driving and speeding was the proximate cause of the accident. The jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Pegues for $3,529,600, and the trial court entered its judgment accordingly. GM filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or in the alternative, for a new trial or a remittitur, all of which the trial court denied. Aggrieved, GM argues on appeal: 1) that they are entitled to judgment because the physical facts disproved Pegues's claim, 2) that the verdict is contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence, 3) that Pegues's expert was improperly allowed to testify about matters beyond his competence as an auto mechanic, 4) that Pegues's prejudicial references to irrelevant "side-saddle gas tank litigation" and alleged "problems" with other ball joints required a new trial, and 5) that the damage award was excessive and unsupported by proper evidence. Finding no error to the issues raised, we affirm the judgment entered on the jury's verdict.

FACTS

¶2. In 1982, GM sold a Chevrolet pickup truck as a new vehicle to James Scott. In May 1985, Scott sold the pickup to Womble and Prides, an automobile sales and service operation, who in turn, sold it to Pegues's brother, Ezell. On or about April 27, 1996, Pegues borrowed the pickup truck from his brother, and was traveling along Highway 6 in Panola County, Mississippi.*fn1 Pegues stated that he had been "hanging out" with friends and admitted to drinking beer that evening.*fn2 After dropping his friends off, Pegues testified that as he was driving home in the right lane, he went down a hill over a "dip" in the road, and approximately a half mile later something caused the pickup to veer left off of the road.*fn3 Pegues stated that he was able to slow down, return to the road, and regain control of the truck. Pegues testified that since he was approximately two miles from his home, he thought he could get the truck home before anything else occurred. Pegues stated that he sped up and "that's when it was coming off the road again. And while it was coming off the road it was burning my hand when I tried to pull it back on the road, and I was steady fighting it." Pegues stated that he was unable to get the truck back onto the road. He testified, "I was turning back to the right, but it was going to the left." Pegues was unable to regain control of the vehicle, and it crashed into a concrete box culvert. Pegues testified that that was the last thing he remembered until regaining consciousness in the hospital approximately three weeks later. Pegues stated that he suffered catastrophic injuries in the accident, which necessitated extensive hospitalization and fourteen separate surgeries, including the amputation of his left leg. At the time of trial, the cost of medical care for these injuries was $190,424.16.

¶3. Pegues argues that the sole proximate cause of the collision and his resulting injuries was the unreasonably dangerous, defective design and manufacture of the front end ball joint assembly by GM. GM argues that the cause of the accident was driver error in that Pegues was driving drunk at nearly 80 mph, and that just before the pickup left the road, he attempted to drive with one hand while fumbling to turn on some lights, and he simply ran off the road. The main issue that was presented to the jury was whether the ball joint broke before the accident or whether the ball joint broke after the impact occurred. Both sides presented expert testimony, and the jury ultimately sided with Pegues and unanimously awarded him damages. GM filed post trial motions which were denied. Aggrieved, GM now appeals.

ARGUMENT AND DISCUSSION OF LAW

I. WHETHER THE VERDICT OF THE JURY WAS UNSUPPORTED BY THEPHYSICAL EVIDENCE.

II. WHETHER THE VERDICT WAS CONTRARY TO THE OVERWHELMINGWEIGHT OF THE EVIDENCE.

¶4. Since GM's Issues I and II deal with the sufficiency and weight of the evidence and are essentially two similar standards, we shall discuss them together. GM argues on appeal that incontrovertible physical evidence proved that the ball joint assembly was not defective and that the condition of the pickup truck had nothing to do with the accident. GM contends that the evidence proved that the ball joint assembly broke in the severe accident caused by Pegues's own negligence. Furthermore, GM argues that Pegues's theory of the defect and causation does not fit any of the physical evidence in the case.

¶5. Pegues argues that the evidence supported the findings of the jury, that a factory-installed GM front-end ball joint, properly maintained and having only 70,000 miles on it, broke during travel on the highway, causing the wheel to collapse and Pegues to lose control of the pickup. Pegues contends that the main issue of whether the ball joint broke before or after the accident was a question of fact for the jury to decide. We agree.

¶6. The standard of review for challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence is well settled in this state. When reviewing the trial court's denial of a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, this Court's scope of review is limited as follows:

Where, as here, the trial Judge has refused to grant a motion for JNOV, we examine all of the evidence--not just the evidence which supports the non-movant's case--in the light most favorable to the party opposed to the motion.

All credible evidence tending to support the non-movant's case and all favorable inferences reasonably drawn therefrom are accepted as true and redound to the benefit of the non-mover. If the facts and inferences so considered point so overwhelmingly in favor of the movant that reasonable men could not have arrived at a contrary verdict, the motion should be granted. On the other hand, if there is substantial evidence opposed to the motion, that is, evidence of such quality and weight that reasonable and fairminded men in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different Conclusions, the jury verdict should be allowed to stand and the motion denied, and, if it has been so denied, we have no authority to reverse.

C & C Trucking Co. v. Smith, 612 So. 2d 1092, 1098 (Miss. 1992) (citations omitted). In City of Jackson v. Locklar, 431 So. 2d 475, 478-79 (Miss. 1983), the court stated:

"It is no answer to say that the jury's verdict involved speculation and conjecture. . . . [A] measure of speculation and conjecture is required on the part of those whose duty it is to settle the dispute by choosing what seems to them to be the most reasonable inference. Some guesswork and speculation are necessarily involved in practically all jury verdicts, including those no one would dream of suggesting be disturbed. ". . . . "Our institutional role mandates substantial deference to the jury's findings of fact and to the trial Judge's determination whether a jury issue was tendered. When a verdict is challenged via appeal from denial of a motion j.n.o.v., we have before us the same record that the trial Judge had. We see the testimony the trial Judge heard. We do not, however, observe the manner and demeanor of the witnesses. We do not smell the smoke of battle." (citation omitted).

The trial Judge's determination whether, under the standards articulated above, a jury issue has been presented, must per force be given great respect here.

¶7. In motion for a new trial, the weight of the evidence is challenged. Henson v. Roberts, 679 So. 2d 1041, 1045 (Miss. 1996). The grant or denial of a motion for a new trial is and always has been a matter within the sound discretion of the trial Judge. The credible evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. The credible evidence supporting the claims or defenses of the non-moving party should generally be taken as true. When the evidence is so viewed, the motion should be granted only when upon a review of the entire record the trial Judge is left with a firm and definite conviction that the verdict, if allowed to stand, would work a miscarriage of Justice. Our authority to reverse is limited to those cases wherein the trial Judge has abused his discretion. Moody v. RPM Pizza, Inc., 659 So. 2d 877, 881 (Miss. 1995).

¶8. In the case sub judice, the jury heard all the evidence from the witnesses, not from a transcript. Pegues introduced direct evidence in the form of photographs, videos, physical exhibits, and the testimony of fact witnesses including himself. GM introduced its own witnesses and theory as to why the accident occurred. Pegues's expert argued that the GM ball joint collapsed before the vehicle left the road. GM's expert argued that the damage to the ball joint could only have occurred in a severe accident. However, this was contradicted when GM's own video demonstration showed that when the left ball joint is disengaged, the vehicle will jerk to the left. This particular video involved a 1982 Chevrolet pickup traveling 35 miles per hour on a level test track. As the ball joint was disengaged, the vehicle jerked to the left, and GM's own expert, who had been steering with only his left hand, was forced to grab the wheel with both hands to correct it.*fn4

¶9. GM argued that Pegues's drinking was the sole proximate cause of the accident. The jury was constantly reminded of this throughout the trial, and as the trial Judge appropriately stated:

While many jury verdicts arouse the emotions of the citizens and the media, in analyzing a jury verdict, one has to calmly apply reasoned judgment and the law to the evidence presented. It must be kept in mind that the jury was more than adequately instructed on the liability issues as well as on our contributory/negligence laws. MCA Sec. 11-7-15, enacted by out state legislature in 1910, states: In all actions hereafter brought for personal injuries, or where such injuries have resulted in death, or for injury to property, the fact that the person injured, or the owner of property, or person having control over the property may have been guilty of contributory negligence shall not bar recovery, but damages shall be diminished by the jury in proportion to the amount of negligence attributable to the person injured, or the owner of the property, or the person having control over the property.

¶10. When facts are in dispute as they were in this case, the jury is given the power to resolve the factual disputes, and this jury did so in favor of Pegues. Moreover, it was the province of the jury to weigh the credibility of the witnesses. After careful review of the record, it is this Court's opinion that a "reasonable, hypothetical juror" could have returned a verdict as this one did. There is ample evidence supporting the jury's verdict. When the evidence is disputed and different Conclusions argued, the Court "has refused to take an issue from the jury or to interfere with a jury's decision." McKinzie v. Coon, 656 So. 2d 134, 140 (Miss. 1995). This issue is without merit.

III. WHETHER PEGUES'S EXPERT WAS IMPROPERLY ALLOWED TO TESTIFY ABOUT MATTERS BEYOND HIS COMPETENCE AS AN AUTO MECHANIC.

¶11. GM argues on appeal that Pegues's expert, Benny Spencer, was improperly allowed to testify about the cause and nature of the accident. Specifically, GM contends that although Spencer was legitimately qualified to testify as to whether the ball joint assembly had been well-maintained and was factory-installed, he was not qualified to testify about whether the castle nut had been tightened to factory specifications during assembly, whether the ball stud was loose before the accident, what caused the ball stud to separate from the socket, whether the left front wheel laid out flat on the road, and whether the ball joint assembly was "unreasonably dangerous". GM contends that only an accident reconstructionist would be qualified to testify as to the above issues, and that Spencer was only admitted as an expert in auto mechanics, not accident reconstruction. Moreover, GM argues that Spencer had no formal education beyond high school to qualify him as an expert.

¶12. Pegues argues that not only had Spencer been a professional auto mechanic for forty years, he also had received training by General Motors Corporation, worked as a mechanic at a General Motors dealership, owned his own automotive business for thirty-three years, and had "hands on, professional experience with the front end assembly and ball joints on General Motors vehicles," having worked on 50 to 100 ball joints over the years. Furthermore, Pegues contends that Spencer's opinions were based on his personal examination of the pickup truck, its ball joint, and its front-end assembly.

¶13. To be qualified as an expert under the Mississippi Rules of Evidence, Rule 702 provides:

If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise. (emphasis added).

In addition, Rule 703 states:

The facts or data in the particular case upon which an expert bases an opinion or inferences may be those perceived by or made known to him at or before the hearing. If of a type reasonably relied upon by experts in the particular filed in forming opinions or inferences ...


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