Monday, June 1, 2009

Case Brief: Sunvillas Homeowners Ass'n, Inc. v. Square D Co.

By Brian A. Comer

Today's brief is of Sunvillas Homeowners Ass'n v. Square D Co., 301 S.C. 330, 391 S.E.2d 868 (Ct. App. 1990). The case is most often cited for for the principle that the mere fact that a product malfunctions does not establish the manufacturer's negligence or that the product was defective.

Factual Background: A fire occurred at a beachfront condominium project. Square D manufactured a circuit breaker utilized in the project. 301 S.C. at 332, 391 S.E.2d at 869.

Procedure: Sunvillas Homeowners Association ("Sunvillas") sued various defendants to recover damages resulting from the fire, and the only defendant involved in the appeal was Square D. 301 S.C. at 332, 391 S.E.2d at 869. Sunvillas claimed the circuit breaker was negligently designed or manufactured. Id. At the end of the plaintiff's case, Square D made a motion for directed verdict, which the trial judge granted. Id. "Square D then moved to amend the complaint to conform to the proof on the issue of warranty. The trial judge denied the motion the basis that he had already directed a verdict when the motion was made." Id. at 334, 391 S.E.2d at 870.

Issues: The two issues on appeal were (1) whether the trial judge erred in granting Square D's motion for a directed verdict at the end of the plaintiff's case, and (2) whether the trial judge erred in denying the motion to amend Sunvillas complaint to add a breach of warranty claim. 301 S.C. at 332, 391 S.E.2d at 869.

Disposition: The South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the decisions of the trial court.

Rules and Opinion: The court first addressed the granting of the directed verdict motion. 301 S.C. at 332-34, 391 S.E.2d at 869-70. Sunvillas employed the services of an expert qualified in electrical engineering and origin of electrical fires. Id. at 332, 391 S.E.2d at 870. The expert sent the circuit breaker to Square D for analysis, but he did not agree with their opinion that the cause of the malfunction was water and waterborne contaminants which had followed the top lead-in wires into the breaker. Id. He agreed that there was corrosion in the breaker, but denied that it was the cause of the failure. Id. Though he could not identify the defect, he based his opinion of product defect on the fact that the breaker malfunctioned. Id. In affirming the trial court's directed verdict for Square D, the court stated that "[t]he mere fact that a product malfunctions does not demonstrate the manufacturer's negligence nor tend to establish the product was defective." Id. at 333, 391 S.E.2d at 870. Though negligence may be proven by circumstantial evidence, "the plaintiff must show such circumstances as would justify the inference that the damages suffered were due to the negligent act of the defendant and the question may not be left to mere conjecture or speculation." Id. at 334, 391 S.E.2d at 870. Sunvillas' expert did not testify about design alternatives, and he did not identify a specific defect in the breaker that was the result of a manufacturing error. Id. The jury would have been left to speculate about the how Square D failed to exercise due care, so the trial court was correct in granting the directed verdict. Id.

With regard to the denial of plaintiff's motion to amend the complaint, this issue is somewhat confusing because the court's decision is not entirely clear on who moved for the amendment of the complaint. At the outset of the opinion, the court states that Sunvillas made the motion. 301 S.C. 332, 391 S.E.2d at 869. However, at the beginning of the discussion, the court states that "Square D moved to amend the complaint to conform to the proof on the issue of warranty." Id. at 334, 391 S.E.2d at 870. Later, the court again states that it was Sunvilla's motion. Id. at 335, 391 S.E.2d at 871. Regardless, the court stated that the motion was governed by S.C.R.C.P. 15(b) and that there was no evidence that the issue of implied warranty was tried by express or implied consent. Id. Sunvillas chose to plead only negligence, and "[i]t did not move to amend until after the trial judge had ruled against it on a directed verdict motion." Id. The court agreed with commentators that the opposing party may not be conscious of the relevance of certain evidence to issues not raised by the pleadings if that matter is not made clear. Id. "Since defect of the project was relevant to neglengence as well as warranty and we find no indication of implied consent to try a warranty claim, we affirm the trial court's decision to deny the motion." Id. The second portion of S.C.R.C.P. 15(b) (dealing with objection to the introduction of evidence as being not within the pleadings) was not applicable to the case. Id.

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