Steele County District Court File No. C4991002
Considered and decided by Randall, Presiding Judge, Shumaker, Judge, and
1. Error in a court's refusal to give a res ipsa loquitur jury instruction is preserved for review through a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.
2. When evidence shows prima facie that the accident is of a type that does not usually happen absent negligence; the instrumentality that caused the accident was in the defendant's exclusive control; and the plaintiff did not contribute to the accident, the plaintiff is entitled to a res ipsa loquitur jury instruction.
3. A court's failure to give a jury instruction to which a litigant is entitled is a fundamental error of law; if such failure affected the outcome of the case, the litigant has been prejudiced and is entitled to a new trial.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gordon W. Shumaker, Judge
Appellant was injured in respondent's factory when he fell into a drainage gutter after a safety grate over the gutter buckled. The evidence showed that respondent had exclusive control over the grate and that the grate could not fall into the gutter if it had been properly set in place. There was no evidence that appellant moved or lifted the grate. The district court refused to instruct on res ipsa loquitur. The jury found neither party negligent. The court denied appellant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Because the court's failure to give a res ipsa instruction was fundamental error and that the damages award was perverse, we reverse and remand.
Appellant Roger Stelter sued respondent Owatonna Canning Co. (now Chiquita Processed Foods) for damages after he fell into a drainage gutter in Chiquita's factory. At his jury trial, Stelter asked the district court to give a res ipsa loquitur instruction on the issue of negligence. The court refused. The uncontradicted liability facts follow.
There were drain gutters in the floor near the corn-cutting machines in Chiquita's canning factory. The gutters were covered with steel safety grates that fit into grooves so that they would lay flush with the floor. The grates were designed to support the weight of people walking or standing on them. There is enough room between the edges of the grates and the walls of the gutters to allow the grates to move slightly, but they will not slip off the supporting shoulders if they are properly set in place. The grates are not bolted into place and can readily be lifted off the gutters for cleaning. Only Chiquita employees clean the gutters, and they are responsible for properly replacing the grates when they finish cleaning.
Stelter and Henry Keizer, food inspectors for the state department of agriculture, conducted a surprise inspection of Chiquita's factory on September 17, 1997. They identified areas that needed correction and returned the next day for a reinspection. During the reinspection, Chiquita's quality-assurance manager, James Hermes, accompanied them.
Stelter decided to examine a particular corn cutter. There was a safety grate covering the drain gutter near the machine. Stelter glanced at the grate and "[i]t had the appearance of being okay." He put the weight of one leg on the grate, and it held up and did not ...