Friday, June 26, 2009

Case Brief: Anderson v. Green Bull, Inc.

By Brian A. Comer

Today's case brief is Anderson v. Green Bull, Inc., 322 S.C. 268, 471 S.E.2d (Ct. App. 1996). This is a warnings case, and it stands for the principle that a seller is not liable for injuries caused by a product if there is an an adequate warning and the user fails to follow it. Furthermore, there is no duty to warn of common or obvious dangers.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: Joe McLees ("Deceased") was working with another employee of Tucker Roofing ("Tucker") to replace a roof on a house. 322 S.C. at 270, 471 S.E.2d at 710. Two high-voltage power lines ran over the top of the house. Id. While they were moving an aluminum conveyor ladder, the Deceased was electrocuted and the other employee was injured. Id. Green Bull sold the ladder to Tucker, and Tucker assembled it, without modifications. Id. The ladder contained a red warning label that read, "KEEP ENTIRE UNIT CLEAR OF ALL UTILITY AND ELECTRICAL WIRING." Id.

PROCEDURE: The Deceased's personal representative ("Plaintiff") brought a strict liability action against Green Bull. 322 S.C. at 269, 471 S.E.2d at 709-10. At the close of evidence, Green Bull moved for directed verdict, which was denied. Id. at 269, 471 S.E.2d at 710. The jury returned a $50,000 verdict for the Plaintiff. Id. Green Bull moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which the trial court also denied. Id. Green Bull then appealed to the South Carolina Court of Appeals. Id.

ISSUES: Whether the trial court should have granted Green Bull's motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict. 322 S.C. at 269-70, 471 S.E.2d at 710.

DISPOSITION: The South Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court. 322 S.C. at 269, 471 S.E.2d at 710.

RULES AND OPINION: For any strict liability claim, a plaintiff must prove that the injury occurred because the product was in an unreasonably dangerous, defective condition. 322 S.C. at 270, 471 S.E.2d at 710. To prevent a product from being unreasonably dangerous, a seller may be required to provide a warning on the product concerning its use. Id. As stated by the court:

A product bearing a warning that the product is safe for use if the user follows the warning is neither defective nor unreasonably dangerous; therefore, the seller is not liable for any injuries caused by the use of the product if the user ignores the warning. Further, a seller is not required to warn of dangers or potential dangers that are generally known or recognized. It follows, then, that a product cannot be deemed either defective or unreasonably dangerous if a danger associated with the product is one that the product's users generally recognize.

Id. at 270-71, 471 S.E.2d at 710 (citations omitted). On this basis, there was no evidence to infer that the roofers' injuries were caused by a defect in the ladder. Id. at 271, 471 S.E.2d at 710. It is commonly known that aluminum ladders should be kept away from power lines. Id. at 271, 471 S.E.2d at 711. Plaintiff also argued that the jury could have reasonably found that the accident resulted from "arcing" (i.e., where an electrical current "jumps" into a conductive source without direct contact), and that arcing is not common knowledge. Id. at 272, 471 S.E.2d at 711. However, the court said that there was no evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that arcing most probably took place. Id. For these reasons, the trial court erred in denying Green Bull's motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Id.

CONCURRING OPINION (Cureton, J.): Judge Cureton concurred with the majority, but stated that the question presented was "whether Green Bull, knowing the foreseeable use of the ladder, had a duty to warn its users against the hazard of bringing the ladder into contact with electrical lines, and if so, whether the warning it placed on the ladder was adequate." 322 S.C. at 273, 471 S.E.2d at 712. Judge Cureton agreed that Green Bull had a duty to warn, but found that the warning provided by Green Bull was adequate. Id. at 273-74. 471 S.E.2d at 712.

DISSENTING OPINION (Howell, C.J.): Chief Judge Howell framed the issue as "not whether the trial judge considers the product unreasonably dangerous, but what the evidence reflects may reasonably be regarded as unreasonably dangerous." 322 S.C. at 275, 471 S.E.2d at 713. He reviewed the evidence concerning the use of fiberglass, how it would change the composition, utility and weight of the ladder, and the state of the art. Id. at 276-77, 471 S.E.2d at 713-14. Based on the evidence, Chief Judge Howell dissented because he believed that "there was ample competent evidence in the record for the trial judge to submit the issue of whether the ladder was defective by design to the jury." Id. at 277, 471 S.E.2d at 714.

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