JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (Legal Newsline) – The Missouri Supreme Court has overturned the decision of a lower court in a product liability lawsuit over an incident that has left the plaintiff with an ongoing back injury.

Robert Johnson sued Cottrell Inc. and Auto Handling Corp. after he allegedly was injured trying to tighten a chain on a trailer-tractor manufactured by Cottrell. Johnson was employed by Jack Cooper Transport Co. when the incident occurred in July 2007. He allegedly was attempting to tighten one of the chains that had been identified in a pre-haul inspection as being loose.

Johnson was treated for back pain following the incident. He was diagnosed with a herniated lumbar disc, which he had surgery for in January 2008, court documents state.

“The record contains substantial evidence he has not recovered from the back injury caused, in whole or in part, by the idler accident,” the court decision, written by Judge Laura Denvir Stith, states.

Johnson claimed negligent design by Cottrell of the chain and ratchet system on the trailer in his compliant. Auto Handling was a contract company used by Jack Cooper for maintenance and repair of their tractor-trailers.

The case made its way to the Supreme Court after a jury verdict in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County. 

The jury found Cottrell 55 percent at fault and Johnson 45 percent at fault on the negligence submissions in Instruction 10 to the jury.

The jury also found Cottrell 49 percent at fault and Johnson 51 percent at fault on his strict liability failure to warn claim. The jury found Johnson suffered damages of $2,091,513.45 from the idler accident. The court reduced that figure according to the apportionment of fault to more than $1.1 million.

The higher court found that the circuit court had erred several times in the decision process, including: granting a directed verdict to one of the defendants, Auto Handling; submitting Johnson’s negligence claims against Cottrell based on MAI 17.02; and allowing the jury to rule on evidentiary rather than ultimate facts.

In its decision, the Supreme Court said the lower court ruling in favor of Auto Handling was an error as Johnson had evidence that supported one of his negligence claims.

The Supreme Court ordered a new trial because of the "intertwined nature of the evidence and the various theories against the two defendants."

The retrial will decide Johnson's negligent maintenance and inspection claim against Auto Handling and his negligence and strict liability failure to warn claim against Cottrell. 

The decision to remand the case for retrial was filed on June 27.

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Jefferson City, MO - 65101-1516

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