Unfounded testimony wins new trial

Forrest v. Beloit Corp., 424 F.3d 344 (3rd Cir. 2005), U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, Sept. 16, 2005.

On Nov. 30, 1999, Paul Forrest, an employee of Jefferson-Smurfit Corp., was seriously injured when tried to clear a jam in a gloss calendar — a paper-making machine — and his arm was pulled into the machine's multi-ton rollers.

Forrest sued Beloit Corp., which manufactured the machine in 1963, charging the company with negligence and strict liability. After trial in federal district court in Pennsylvania, the jury concluded that the machine was not defective, and that Beloit was not negligent in the design or manufacture of the machine.

When Forrest appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the court ruled that Forrest was entitled to a new trial because the trial judge abused his discretion in permitting two of Forrest's fellow employees to testify that there had been no previous accidents involving the gloss calendar that crushed Forrest's arm. Forrest objected that Beloit had failed to establish an adequate foundation for this testimony, and the Third Circuit court agreed that the testimony should not have been admitted. The court noted that Beloit's chief engineer admitted in his deposition that Beloit kept no records of past accidents involving its gloss calendar machines.

According to the appeals court, Beloit's failure to maintain records concerning the safety history of its products meant that there was "no way of knowing whether the absence of prior accidents involving the Jefferson-Smurfit gloss calendar was an aberration, or a typical example of industry experience with substantiallyidentical Beloit gloss calendars." Stating that " witnesses testify from limited knowledge, and the fact that a particular witness is unaware of prior accidents does not mean such accidents have not occurred," the court concluded that allowing the employees' testimony about the lack of prior accidents could have prejudiced Forrest's case.

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