By Brian A. Comer
Periodically, I will try and profile certain South Carolina products liability cases. One of the most significant cases is Young v. Tide-Craft, Inc., 270 S.C. 453, 242 S.E. 2d 671 (1978). Set forth below is a brief of the case and its significant points of law. (Okay, so the below is not too "brief", but this is a long opinion with lots of "meat on the bone," so trust me when I say that it is about as "brief" as I can make it).
FACTUAL BACKGROUND: Plaintiff's husband ("Husband") died in a boating accident. Young, 270 S.C. at 458, 242 S.E.2d at 673. The boat employed a "pop-up stick" steering system that consisted of a "stick" or "lever" attached to a pulley wheel (i.e., instead of a conventional steering wheel). Id. Part of the mechanism consisted of a "cable pulley" system. This system involved a 3/16 inch plastic covered steel cable threaded through a series of pulleys and connected to the engine. Id. at 459, 242 S.E.2d at 674. Husband began having problems with the steering stick. Id. He took the boat to a repairman (Hegel), and the repairman made temporary repairs, which involved stripping away the frayed portion of the cable's sheathing and resetting the cable. Hegel told Husband that the boat would eventually need to be rewired. Id. at 459-460, 242 S.E.2d at 674. Husband later brought the boat back to Hegel for rewiring, but Hegel did not have sufficient cable to rewire the system. Id. Husband wanted to use the boat the following weekend, so Hegel and Husband talked about splicing in a portion of new cable to replace the frayed portion. Id. After discussing this option, the decision to splice was made. Id.
PROCEDURE: The Plaintiff (wife of the decedent) brought actions for wrongful death and conscious pain and suffering against the boat manufacturer, retailer, and the boat repair shop. Young, 270 S.C. at 461 242 S.E.2d at 675. Both of Plaintiff's actions were based on alternative theories of negligence, breach of implied warranty, and strict liability in tort. Id. The jury returned a verdict against the boat manufacturer with regard to the conscious pain and suffering action and warded $30,000 in actual damages. In the wrongful death action, the jury returned a verdict of $160,000 in actual damages and $10,000 in punitive damages against the manufacturer. Id. The jury absolved the retailer and boat repair shop of liability. Id.
ISSUES: The court analyzed two separate and distinct aspects of claimed liability in the case. First, Plaintiff contended that the manufacturer was chargeable with the splicing and resulting disengagement of a steering cable from the tiller clamp, making the manufacturer liable for damages. Young, 270 S.C. at 461, 242 S.E.2d at 675. Second, Plaintiff argued that even if the manufacturer could not be charged with the splicing of the steering cable, the manufacturer was still liable because certain alleged defects of the boat which became operative after the cable separated were contributing causes of Husband's death. Id.
DISPOSITION: The court reversed. With regard to the first issue, the manufacturer could not be held liable since the intervening acts of the boat repairman consituted the sole proximate cause of the disengagement of the steering cable (as a matter of law). With regard to the second issue, the Plaintiff failed to establish proximate cause (with one exception that was disposed of on other grounds.
RULES AND OPINION: The "touchstone" of proximate cause in South Carolina is foreseeability. 270 S.C. at 462, 242 S.E.2d at 675. It is determined by looking to the "natural and probable consequences" of the complained of act. Id. "The actor cannot be charged with 'that which is unpredictable or that which could not be expected to happen.'" Id. at 463, 242 S.E.2d at 676. (quoting Stone v. Bethea, 251 S.C. 157, 161-62, 161 S.E.2d 171, 173 (1968)). In order to determine whether a consequence is natural and probable, the actor's conduct must be viewed in light of the surrounding circumstances. Id. "Where there is a contention that an intervening agency interrupts the foreseeable chain of events, there are two consequences to be tested: (1) the injury complained of, and (2) the acts of the intervening agency. If the acts of the intervening agency are a probably consequence of the primary wrongdoer's actions, i.e., 'foreseeable', the primary wrongdoer is liable. However, even if the intervening acts are not foreseeable, the primary wrongdoer is nevertheless liable if his actions alone 'would have cuased the loss in natural course.'" Id. (quoting Benford v. Berkeley Heating Co., 258 S.C. 357, 365, 188 S.E.2d 841 (1972)). Based on this rule, the court stated that it must determined (1) whether the actions of the repairman were a probable consequence of the alleged defects and/0r negligence attributable to the manufacturer, and (2) if the answer to the first question is "no", whether the injury at issue would have followed in natural course in the absence of the repairman's actions. Id. at 463-464, 242 S.E.2d 676.
Based on the evidence, the court concluded that the only reasonable inference was that the repairman's actions were not foreseeable. 270 S.C. 464, 242 S.E.2d at 676. He knew and admitted that splicing was dangerous, and he told Husband the same when he finished the repairs. Id. Based on the repairman's own practice and knowledge of the industry, the likelihood of a steering cable being spliced was highly remote. Id. at 465, 242 S.E.2d at 676. "Adding together the remoteness of the possibility that splicing would take place under any given set of circumstances with Hegel's knowledge of the danger involved, it can not be seriously contended that Hegel's actions were a probable consequence of any wrongdoing on the part of Tide Craft." Id. at 465, 242 S.E.2d at 677. This was not a case where a third party's ignorance led to the creation of a highly dangerous condition. Id. The repairman "unleashed" the risk with full knowledge of the dangerous consequences. Id. With regard to the second question (whether the injury would have occurred in the natural course absent the repairman's actions), the court concluded that there was no evidence that would support an inference that the cable would have separated or that there would have been a loss of steering without the splicing. Id.
With regard to the second aspect of the case, Plaintiff alleged that the boat had a propensity to eject an occupant, and that the manufacturer failed to install a "kill switch" that would cut the motor if an occupant was ejected from his seat. 270 S.C. 466, 242 S.E.2d at 677. The court held that the Plaintiff failed to establish that the propensity to eject was a proximate cause of Husband's injury, and the failure to install a kill switch is not a defect under products liability theories of warranty, negligence, or strict liability. Id. at 467, 242 S.E.2d at 671. The court stated that the Plaintiff needed to show that in the absence of the alleged defects (i.e. swivel seating without locking devices, height of seats, etc.), the forces generated by the loss of steering alone would not have thrown Husband overboard. Id. at 467, 242 S.E.2d at 678. The court concluded that the opinion of Plaintiff's expert on this issue was "simply a surmise" and inadequate to prove causation. 270 S.C. at 467-68, 242 S.E.2d at 678. Based on the expert's analysis, he could not say with any reasonable degree of accuracy that the forces attributed to the alleged defects contributed to Husband's ejection to the extent that the ejection would not have occurred in the absence of the alleged defects. Id. at 470, 242 S.E.2d at 679. Since Plaintiff could not meet this burden, her allegations of failure to test and failure to warn about ejection were also not proximate causes of the injury in question. Id. With regard to the "kill switch" defect theory, the court analyzed strict liability and said that "the absence of the kill switch must constitute a defect 'unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer.'" Id. at 471, 242 S.E.2d at 679. The test of whether or not the failure to incorporate a safety device in a product constitutes a "defect" is whether the product, in the absence of the feature, is unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer. Id. The court framed the test as follows: "The question that presents itself is whether the absence of the kill switch per se rendered the boat 'dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics . . . " Id. at 471, 242 S.E.2d at 680 (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts, section 402A cmt. i (1965)). In short, the court said that being ejected is a well-known risk of boating, and it was one that Husband was aware of based on his frequent fishing and boating activity. Accordingly, "the lack of a kill switch does not constitute a defect within the meaning of the strict liability in tort statute." 270 S.C. 472, 242 S.E.2d at 680. The court reached the same conclusion with regard to the warranty and negligence theories. Id.
DISSENT: Justice Ness dissented from the opinion. The thrust of Justice Ness's dissent was that the extent of liability and the issue of proximate cause should have been left to the jury. 270 S.C. at 473, 242 S.E.2d at 681. Justice Ness believed that the testimony of Plaintiff's expert was based on his examination of the boat and the physical evidence. Id. at 474, 242 S.E.2d at 681. Whether the expert was qualified and competent was a matter of discretion for the trial judge. Id. at 475, 242 S.E.2d at 681. He also focused on the evidence supporting that the manufacturer failed to test its product and failed to warn about the propensity for ejection. Id. at 475-76, 242 S.E.2d at 682. Finally, he referred to Plaintiff's expert's testimony concerning the kill switch as evidence that such failure contributed to Husband's ejection. Id.