Friday, June 5, 2009

Case Brief: Dema v. Shore Enterprises, Ltd.

By Brian A. Comer

Today's case brief is of Dema v. Shore Enterprises, Ltd., 312 S.C. 528, 435 S.E.2d 875 (Ct. App. 1993). The case is most often cited for for the principle that "a product is not defective for failure to warn of the obvious." Id. at 530, 435 S.E.2d at 876. This is a short case, and you can probably read it in its entirety in about as much time as it takes to read this brief.

Factual Background: Plaintiff Dema was body surfing on a public beach and collided with a recreational vehicle known as an Aqua-Cycle. 312 S.C. at 529, 435 S.E.2d at 875-76.

Procedure: Plaintiff and his wife brought a products liability action against various individuals and entities, including the Aqua-Cycle manufacturer. 312 S.C. at 529, 435 S.E.2d at 876-77. At trial, Plaintiffs claimed that the failure to place certain warnings on the watercraft (to "watch out for swimmers" and to "avoid strong current, wind or waves") made the craft defective and unreasonably dangerous. Id. at 530, 435 S.E.2d at 876. The trial court granted a directed verdict in favor of the manufacturer as to the Plaintiffs' claims for strict liability, breach of implied warranty, and negligence because it found that failure to place a warning on the watercraft was not the proximate cause of the injuries. Id. Plaintiffs also claimed at trial that the town was negligent in allowing Aqua-Cycles to be used on the beach in the vicinity of swimmers. Id. at 531, 435 S.E.2d at 876. The trial court granted a directed verdict on the ground that there was no evidence that the town had actual notice of a defective or dangerous condition as required under the South Carolina Tort Claims Act. Id. The jury found in favor of the remaining defendants on the remaining claims. Id. at 530, 435 S.E.2d at 875.

Issues: The Plaintiffs appealed from the directed verdicts in favor of the (1) manufacturer, and (2) the Town of Hilton Head. 312 SC. at 530, 435 S.E.2d at 875.

Disposition: The South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court. 312 S.C. at 530, 435 S.E.2d at 875.

Rules and Opinion: With regard to the first issue, the South Carolina Court of Appeals first reviewed the three elements that a plaintiff must establish in any products liability claim. 312 S.C. at 530, 435 S.E.2d at 876. The only element in dispute was whether "the injury occurred because the product was in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user." Id. The court reviewed the evidence to determine, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, whether the evidence was susceptible to the reasonable inference that the Aqua-Cycle was defective. Id. "A product is not defective for failure to warn of the obvious." Id. (citing Koester v. Carolina Rental Ctr., Inc., 311 S.C. 115, 427 S.E.2d 708 (Ct. App. 1993)). The evidence was indisputable that Aqua-Cycle users would be aware, based on common sense, that they should be careful around swimmers in the surf. Id. at 530-31, 435 S.E.2d at 876. Because of the obviousness of the risk, the manufacturer did not have a duty to warn users of the Aqua-Cycle of the risk. Id. It affirmed the trial court's directed verdict in favor of the manufacturer. Id.

With regard to the second issue, the South Carolina Court of Appeals stated that it did not need to determine whether the town had notice of a dangerous condition. 312 S.C. at 531, 435 S.E.2d at 876. Instead, because the jury found that the franchisee (Shore Enterprises) was not negligent in renting Aqua-Cycles, it could not have found the town liable for allowing the franchisee to rent the Aqua-Cycle that Plaintiff Dema collided with. Id. at 531, 435 S.E.2d at 877.

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