Monday, June 15, 2009

Case Brief: Barnwell v. Barber-Colman Co.

By Brian A. Comer

Today's brief is of Barnwell v. Barber-Colman Co., 301 S.C. 534, 393 S.E.2d 162 (1989). This case is most often cited for the rule that a plaintiff cannot recover punitive damages in a cause of action based solely on strict liability. Punitive damages are not available for strict liability claims in South Carolina.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: Plaintiff's hand was badly mangled in a piece of textile machinery manufactured by Defendant Barber-Colman ("Defendant"). 301 S.C. at 536, 393 S.E.2d at 162.

PROCEDURE: Plaintiff sued Defendant and elected to proceed to trial solely under the theory of strict liability, alleging that the machinery was equipped with a defectively designed guard. 301 S.C. at 536, 393 S.E.2d at 162. The jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff in the amount of $1 million in actual damages and $2.8 million in punitive damages. Id.

ISSUE: The court accepted on certification from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina the following question of law: "Under South Carolina law, are punitive damages recoverable in a cause of action based solely on the theory of strict liability?" 301 S.C. at 536, 393 S.E.2d at 162.

DISPOSITION: "We hold that punitive damages are not recoverable in a cause of action based solely upon the theory of strict liability." 301 S.C. at 536, 393 S.E.2d at 162.

RULES AND OPINION: South Carolina recognized strict liability in 1974 through Act Number 1184. 301 S.C. at 536, 393 S.E.2d at 163. The Act incorporated almost verbatim the definition of strict liability from Restatement (Second) of Torts section 402A. Id. "Where a cause of action is created by statute, the statute determines what damages may be recovered." Id. The Act does not specifiy that punitive damages are recoverable, and S.C. Code section 15-73-10(1) states that a seller of a defecive product "is subject to liability for physical harm caused . . . ." Id. at 536-37, 393 S.E.2d at 163 (emphasis in original). Punitive damages are not assessed to compensate a plaintiff for physical harm suffered. Id. at 537, 393 S.E.2d at 163. Their purpose is to punish the wrongdoer and deter him and others from similar future action. Id. Therefore, punitive damages are not recoverable under the Act. Id. The dissent's conclusion that the court's decision places South Carolina in the minority is deceiving because South Carolina is one of a small number of states that adopted strict liability by legislative enactment, as opposed to judicial decision. Id. "Where the legislature has, by statute, acted upon a subject, the judiciary is limited to interpretation and construction of that statute." Id. To read something into the statute that was not put there by the legislature would be to legislate, and not to interpret. Id. at 538, 393 S.E. 2d at 163-64. If punitive damages are to be permitted by the statute, then the legislature would have to amend it. Id. at 538, 393 S.E.2d at 164.

DISSENT: Justice Finney wrote a dissent in which he set forth his opinion that South Carolina law permits recovery of punitive damages in actions based solely on strict liaiblity. 301 S.C. at 538-43, 393 S.E.2d at 164-66. South Carolina allows punitive damages in numerous types of tort actions. Id. at 539, 393 S.E.2d at 164. The General Assembly, in adopting S.C. Code section 15-73-10, did not specify limits on the type of damages that are recoverable. Id. at 539-40, 393 S.E.2d at 164-65. They simply codified Restatement (Second) of Torts section 402A, and other jurisdictions that have interpreted it have found that strict liability and punitive damages are compatible. Id. The cases relied on by the majority are distinguishable by the fact that the statutes at issue in those cases were more explicit, and current public policy favors allowing punitive damages in almost every kind of tort action. Id. at 541, 393 S.E.2d at 165. From the language of the strict liability statute, "liability" was intended to be given a broader meaning than the one assigned by the majority. Id. at 541-42, 393 S.E.2d at 165-66. The General Assembly's intent was to permit the statute to operate under existing South Carolina law. Id. at 542, 393 S.E.2d at 166. Because South Carolina's law favors punitive damages awards in tort action, it is reasonable that punitive damages would extend to strict liability. Id. There is nothing in the Act to indicate any legislative intent to change the common law, and therefore the court may not extend the application of the statute to achieve that intent. Id. Though punitive damages are compatible with strict liability cases, they should only be awarded where the defendant had prior knowledge of the specific defect complained of by the plaintiff, but the defendant continued to market the product anyway. Id. Strict liability was not intended to be a shield for manufacturers to limit recovery to compensatory damages, and it does not make sense to allow punitive damages for certain products liability theories (e.g., negligence), but not for strict liability. Id. at 542-43, 393 S.E.2d at 166.

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