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Nodal v. Cal-West Rain, Inc.

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Sixth Division

July 17, 2019

RUBEN NODAL, Plaintiff and Appellant,
CAL-WEST RAIN, INC., Defendant and Respondent.

          Superior Court County No. CV128215 of San Luis Obispo Donald G. Umhofer, Judge.

          Frederick Law Firm, Jacqueline Vitti Frederick and Sunny Hawks; Tardiff Law Offices and Neil S. Tardiff for Plaintiff and Appellant.

          Hager & Dowling, Lora D. Hemphill and Thomas J. Dowling for Defendant and Respondent.

          YEGAN, J.

         A “rogue juror” is someone who, in a mischievous way, wanders apart from fellow jurors, does not follow the court's instructions, and violates the juror's oath. (See CACI No. 100.) This undermines the integrity of trial by an impartial jury. Such a juror may not vote or influence other jurors based upon asserted expertise on a matter not in evidence at trial. This is juror misconduct which raises a presumption of prejudice. Here, it was not rebutted and we reverse.

         This appeal follows a five-week trial in which appellant claimed that a steel nipple was improperly screwed into a plastic bushing on a vineyard irrigation system. The bushing failed, causing a 20-pound valve assembly to blow off a pump station pipe and strike appellant in the head. Appellant sued on a theory of negligent design and construction. The jury returned a 9-3 special verdict that defendant Cal West Rain, Inc. (Cal West) was not negligent.

         Facts and Procedural History

         Appellant, a vineyard foreman for Kesselring Vineyard Consulting Services (KVCS), was injured when a valve assembly blew off a vineyard irrigation pipe and hit him. Lunacy Vineyard hired KVCS to plant and cultivate the vineyard, and Cal West designed and installed the irrigation system. The irrigation system pumped water from a reservoir to a pump station, and from the pump station to irrigation blocks that serviced the vineyard.

         Appellant claimed that the valve assembly blew off the pump station pipe because Cal West improperly joined a steel nipple with a threaded plastic bushing. The valve assembly had a steel nipple that threaded into a two-inch plastic bushing (PVC bushing), which was connected to the pump station pipe. Joe Garza, the Paso Robles branch manager of Cal West, oversaw the installation and trained appellant that the pump station had to be operated in automatic mode to maintain a water pressure of 100 pounds per square inch. Operation of the irrigation system in manual mode would produce water pressure exceeding the system design.

         In August of 2010, the pump station was not working. Appellant moved the power lever on the pump station from “off” to “on, ” opened a gray box on the control panel, and pressed the green “manual” button and the blue “auto” button. After the pump station powered up, the valve assembly blew off the PVC bushing and hit appellant. Appellant's expert, Ronald Bliesner, opined the valve assembly failed due to several factors, one of which was the over tightening of the steel nipple into the threaded bushing.

         After the jury returned a 9-3 special verdict for Cal West, appellant moved for new trial based on juror misconduct, and judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). The trial court found that juror misconduct occurred but did not prejudice appellant. It also ruled that the verdict was supported by substantial evidence.

         Juror Misconduct

         On review, we defer to the trial court's factual findings and independently determine whether the juror misconduct was prejudicial. (Vomaska v. City of San Diego (1997) 55 Cal.App.4th 905, 912.) “Juror affidavits may be used to impeach a verdict if they refer to objectively ascertainable statements, conduct, conditions or events, but not subjective reasoning processes of jurors, which are likely to have influenced theverdict improperly. [Citations.]” (Id. at p. 910.)

         Here, the motion for new trial focused on juror Reed. He was a pipefitter for 35 years who farmed in the Central Valley. He had designed and built an irrigation system for his almond ranch. Appellant submitted four juror declarations stating that, on the first day of deliberations, the jury vote “was split between yes, no, and undecided.” During deliberations, Juror Reed said he had “‘been doing this for years, '” that “‘[a]nybody would have put [the system] together the exact same way, '” and that “‘[Cal West] installed the system like everybody in the industry does.'” “‘[T]hey installed the system the way the AG industry does it, that's just how it's done.'” “‘Everybody does it this way and this is industry standard.'” “‘[O]nce the ...

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