Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Case Brief: Kennedy v. Custom Ice Equipment, Inc.

By Brian A. Comer

Today's brief is of Kennedy v. Custom Ice Equipment Co., Inc., 271 S.C. 171, 246 S.E.2d 176 (1978). The is a product modification case, and it is significant because it discusses how a product may be defective if a third-party modification was foreseeable and should have been incorporated into the design. This is a pretty short case, and you can probably read it in its entirety in about the same amount of time that it takes to read this brief.

Factual Background: Plaintiff was employed at Georgetown Ice Company ("Georgetown"), which manufactured and distributed crushed ice. 271 S.C at 173, 246 S.E.2d at 177. Defendant Custom Ice Equipment, Inc. ("Defendant") designed and installed the machinery used by Georgetown. Plaintiff was instructed to empty the ice storage bins, which were supplied by an overhead conveyor that carried the ice from the ice-maker to the bins. Id. The ice was removed through an opening at the underside of the bin, through which the ice falls when a trap door is opened. Id. If the ice froze up and would not fall out, it had to be physically dislodged. Id. Georgetown had constructed a wooden "catwalk" beside the storage bins so that employees could reach in the bins and break up the frozen ice with a garden hoe. 271 S.C. at 173-74, 246 S.E.2d at 177. Plaintiff attempted to do this and was drawn into the overhead conveyor, ripping his arm off. 271 S.C. at 174, 246 S.E.2d at 177.

Procedure: Plaintiff alleged causes of action against defendant for negligent design of the overhead conveyor and for strict liability. 271 S.C. at 174, 246 S.E.2d at 177. Defendant moved for a directed verdict as to both causes of action, which were denied. Id. The case was submitted to the jury, and a verdict was returned for $208,000. Id.

Issues: Defendant appealed the denial of its motions for directed verdict as to both of Plaintiff's causes of action. 271 S.C. at 174, 246 S.E.2d at 177. The South Carolina Supreme Court reviewed the evidence for both causes of action.

Disposition: The court affirmed the decisions of the trial court. 271 S.C. at 175, 176, 246 S.E.2d at 178.

Rules and Opinion: With regard to the negligence action, Defendant alleged that the overhead conveyor was designed and installed without protective shields because its height rendered it unforeseeable that someone would come into close contact with the exposed portions of the rapidly-turning auger. 271 S.C. at 175, 246 S.E.2d at 177. Defendant compared the danger to that of a high tension power line (i.e., dangerous, but inaccessible). Id. Defendant also claimed that the risk from the conveyor was open and obvious; therefore, the Plaintiff was contributorily negligent by climbing up the conveyor. Id. Plaintiff presented evidence that ice "bridging" was a common problem in the industry and that Defendant was aware of the need to come into close contact with the conveyor to dislodge the ice. 271 S.C. at 175, 246 S.E.2d at 178. There was also evidence that Defendant knew that it was common to reach into the storage bins with garden hoes to dislodge the ice. Id. Because of the conflicting evidence , the trial judge did not err in submitting the negligence claim to the jury. Id. The court stated that questions of negligence, proximate cause, and contributory negligence are ordinarily questions of fact for the jury. Id.

With regard to the second cause of action, Defendant alleged that the screw conveyor was not defective when installed because of the insulation provided by the conveyor's height; therefore, Georgetown's modifications (i.e., constructing the catwalk) created the defect. 271 S.C. at 176, 246 S.E.2d at 178. Plaintiff admitted to the modification, but offered evidence that Defendant had actual knowledge of the construction and use of catwalks in other plants, and therefore Defendant should have foreseen the use of the catwalk. Id. Plaintiff argued that failure to anticipate the foreseeable use of the catwalk by placing protective shields on the conveyor rendered the design of the conveyor defective. Id. The court stated:

The test of whether a product is defective when sold is whether the product is unreasonably dangerous to the consumer or user given the conditions and circumstances that will foreseeably attend the use of the product. Under this test, the jury could have determined that the construction of the catwalk by Georgetown was a foreseeable circumstance that required the incorporation of protective shields in the design of the conveyor.

Id. (but see note below). Therefore, the court held that the evidence created a factual question of whether the Plaintiff's injuries were proximately caused by a defect in the product as designed, or by an unforeseeable modification by a third party. Id. The court contrasted its holding in Young v. Tide-Craft, Inc., 270 S.C. 453, 242 S.E. 2d 671 (1978), where the only reasonable inference was that the product was not defective as designed. 271 S.C. at 176-77, 246 S.E.2d at 178.

Notes: This case preceded Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., 319 S.C. 531, 462 S.E.2d 321 (Ct. App. 1995, which also set forth a second test for determining whether a product is in a defective condition, unreasonably dangerous (i.e., the risk-utility test). See Bragg, 319 S.C at 543-44, 462 S.E.2d at 328.

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