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Erkins v. Case Power & Equipment Co.

    Brief Fact Summary.

    A construction worker died while on the job after falling out of a machine manufactured by the defendant. The construction worker’s estate sued the defendant for strict liability. The defendant sought contribution from the construction worker’s employers based on their alleged negligence.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A defendant being sued on a certain legal theory may implead a third party for contribution based on a different legal theory in federal court.

    Facts.

    T.A. Fitzpatrick Associates, Inc. (Fitzpatrick) entered into a contract to complete a construction project. ERACOM made a bid to do some of the work, which Fitzpatrick accepted. ECRACOM then subcontracted Thomas J. O’Beirne & Company (O’Beirne) to perform a part of its contract. The decedent was employed by O’Beirne and was fatally injured while on the job after falling out of the bucket of a backhoe and being crushed by the wheels of it. Erkins, the personal representative of the decedent’s estate, filed suit against Case Power Equipment Corporation (Case), the manufacturer of the backhoe, claiming that Case was strictly liable for failing to provide adequate warning of the dangers involved with the backhoe. Case blamed the accident on the decedent’s negligence and denied liability. Since Plaintiff did not name Fitzpatrick and ECRACOM as defendants in the case, Case sought contribution from them based on their respective negligence. Both Fitzpatrick and ECRACOM claimed that Case’s strict liability claim is irrelevant to their alleged negligence, and objected to the third-party complaint.

    Issue.

    Can a defendant being sued on a certain legal theory implead a third party for contribution based on a different legal theory in federal court?

    Held.

    Yes. A defendant being sued on a certain may implead a third party for contribution based on a different legal theory in federal court. In this case, even though Case was being sued for strict liability, Case can still bring Fitzpatrick and ECRACOM into the lawsuit for contribution based on their respective negligence. Because Case made a timely motion to implead the others, impleader will not confuse the issues, and no significant delays will occur from the impleader, Case’s motion to implead the others was granted by the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.

    Discussion.

    Rule 14 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs third party complaints. Under Rule 14(a), a defendant may implead a third party who may be liable to the defendant for the plaintiff’s claim. It would be more efficient for the liability of all parties involved to be assessed in one case rather than multiple cases. The following factors may be considered by courts to determine whether impleader is appropriate in a case: whether the motion was timely, whether impleader will confuse the issues, whether impleader will delay the trial, and whether prejudice will result to the plaintiff. Impleader is appropriate when the third party is potentially liable to the defendant, not the plaintiff.


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