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Martinez v. Caterpillar

July 16, 2009

ANDREW MARTINEZ, PLAINTIFF - APPELLANT,
v.
CATERPILLAR, INC., AN ILLINOIS CORPORATION, DEFENDANT - APPELLEE.



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW MEXICO (D. Ct. No. 1:06-cv-00236-RHS/RLP).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Tacha, Circuit Judge.

PUBLISH

Before TACHA, TYMKOVICH, and GORSUCH, Circuit Judges.

Plaintiff-Appellant Andrew Martinez suffered serious injuries while attempting to inflate the right-front tire on a motor grader that was designed and manufactured by Caterpillar Inc. ("Caterpillar"). Mr. Martinez sued Caterpillar on theories of negligence and strict products liability, and the case went to trial. By special verdict, the jury found that Caterpillar was not negligent and that the motor grader was not defective. On appeal, Mr. Martinez asserts that the district court made two errors regarding jury instructions. First, he argues, the district court erred in instructing the jury that Caterpillar could not be liable if the machine's condition had "substantially changed" before the accident. Mr. Martinez also argues that the district court should have instructed the jury that Caterpillar was required to give adequate directions for use of its machine. We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by giving the "substantial change" instruction or by declining to give the instruction on directions for use. We therefore AFFIRM the district court's judgment in favor of Caterpillar.

I. BACKGROUND

On June 27, 2005, employees of Taos County, New Mexico, were using a Caterpillar motor grader to improve a road that passed near Mr. Martinez's home. At that time, Mr. Martinez was near the road, grilling hamburgers and hot dogs for the crew. Mr. Martinez was not employed by the county and was not part of the road crew. The motor grader's right-front tire struck a hard object, causing the tire to deflate. The driver, Johnny Mascarenas, pulled it over to the side of the road, near the location where Mr. Martinez was cooking.

Mr. Mascarenas grabbed a compressor that was mounted to the motor grader and attempted to inflate the tire, but the air hose was too short. Mr. Martinez went to his home to find additional hose length. Mr. Mascarenas tried again, using the extra hose, but he could not inflate the tire. After Mr. Mascarenas quit trying, Mr. Martinez took the hose and tried to inflate the tire himself. During inflation, parts of the wheel assembly underwent a pressurized separation. The parts separated with explosive force, striking Mr. Martinez and causing him serious injuries.

The next day, Mr. Mascarenas found a lock ring-part of the wheel assembly-twenty feet from the motor grader. At trial, a Caterpillar expert testified that the wheel assembly would not have separated had the lock ring been in place. The expert also testified that the impact that caused the tire to deflate also could have knocked the lock ring loose.

Caterpillar did not post warnings on the tires, but it did post a general warning in the cab of the motor grader: "Do not operate or work on this machine unless you have read and understand the instructions and warnings in the operation and maintenance manuals. Failure to follow the instructions or heed the warnings could result in injury or death." The manuals included a section on tire inflation that warned about the risk of explosive wheel separation. The manual stated, "Servicing tires and rims can be dangerous. Only trained personnel that use proper tools and proper procedures should perform this maintenance." Taos County had a policy requiring that a mechanic be called to fix a flat tire on a motor grader, and Mr. Mascarenas knew of the policy.

Mr. Martinez sued Caterpillar in New Mexico state court, claiming both negligence and strict product liability. The case was removed to federal district court. The district court, applying New Mexico substantive law, presented to the jury theories of defective design and failure to warn. The 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. The jury returned a verdict for Caterpillar, finding that Caterpillar was not negligent and that the motor grader was not defective. The verdict form does not indicate whether the jury considered the "substantial change" issue. The district court then entered final judgment in favor of Caterpillar.

On appeal, Mr. Martinez first asserts that the district court erred by giving the "substantial change" instruction. He argues that the loss of the lock ring does not constitute a substantial change; or, if it does, that the change was foreseeable and therefore does not absolve Caterpillar of liability. Mr. Martinez also asserts that the district court erred by not instructing the jury regarding Caterpillar's directions for use of its motor grader.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Both of Mr. Martinez's arguments relate to jury instructions. In a diversity case, federal procedural law governs the court's decision about whether to give a particular instruction. Reed v. Landstar Ligon, Inc., 314 F.3d 447, 449 (10th Cir. 2002). We evaluate the content of the instructions, however, under state substantive law. Id. We review the district court's decision about whether to give a particular instruction for abuse of discretion. Thompson v. United States, 223 F.3d 1206, 1210 (10th Cir. 2000). "We review de novo whether, as a whole, the district court's jury instructions correctly stated the governing law and provided the jury with an ample understanding of the issues and applicable standards." World Wide Ass'n of Specialty Programs v. Pure, Inc., 450 F.3d 1132, 1139 (10th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted). We reverse ...


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