Monday, June 8, 2009

Drilling Down: "Essentially the Same Condition" (Part II)

By Brian A. Comer

This is the second installment of what I guess I can call a "series" based on some research I have been doing for an article. The first installment can be found here.

Meaning of "Essentially the Same Condition": South Carolina statutory law provides some guidance in the strict liability context, and South Carolina's federal and state courts have also interpreted the "essentially the same condition" element in various products liability cases. From my research, the following factors are relevant to whether a product is in "essentially the same condition.

  • Whether it has been "subsequently mishandled;"
  • Whether it has been modified or altered;
  • Whether a significant amount of time has elapsed between when the product left the
  • manufacturer's control and the time of injury, which can be relevant to "wear and tear;"
Today I'm going to profile the second factor, modification or alteration.
Modification or alteration of a product, including modification to its safety features and warnings, may also serve as evidence that a product is not in the same condition. Fernandez v. Spar Tek Indus., Inc., C.A. No. 0:06-3253-CMC, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45393, at *28 (D.S.C. June 10, 2008). Unlike cases where a court characterizes subsequent changes as "mishandling," alteration or modification cases appear (from my research at least) to involve a situation where a party made an attempt to "fix" or adapt a product for continued use.
For example, Fernandez v. Spar Tek Industries., Inc. involved a plywood press, and the plaintiff's expert testified that "[an] interlocking chain had been added and certain warnings changed, further suggesting that changes relating to safety devices likely were made in the over twenty-two years between when the machines left [the manufacturer's] control and when [the plaintiff] was injured." The district court granted summary judgment for the entirety of the plaintiff's products liability claims (brought in strict liability and negligence) because the plaintiff could not provide affirmative evidence that the plywood press at issue was in "essentially the same condition," despite these changes. Id. at *31.
Although the South Carolina Supreme Court did not directly address the "essentially the same condition" requirement in Young v. Tide-Craft, Inc., 270 S.C. 453, 242 S.E.2d 671 (1978), it is clear from a reading of the case (see the linked brief of the case) that subsequent alteration by a boat repairman was a key issue. The court held that "the only reasonable inference that can be drawn from the evidence is that the damages here sustained would not have occurred absent [the boat repairman's] unforeseeable actions." Id. at 468, 242 S.E.2d at 678.
It is also worth mentioning Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., 319 S.C. 531, 536-37, 462 S.E.2d 321, 324-25 (Ct. App. 1995) on this point. Though it was not dispositive of the issue in the case, the court pointed out in Bragg that the majority of the safety decals that were on the boom of the aerial bucket truck at issue had been painted over or removed as a result of actions to refurbish it. Bragg is more significant for "subsequent mishandling" and "lapse of time" (the subject of a future post), but I thought this point was interesting as another basis for finding that the product was not in essentially the same condition.
I will profile the impact of the amount of time that has elapsed between the time a product left a manufacturer's control and the time of injury in the next installment of this series.
Comments are welcome!
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  1. When we think of construction industry, it involves many heavy equipments like the crane trucks where it plays one of the big roles in the job. We cannot deny that they are the key player with regards to heavy jobs in the construction site.

  2. Thanks for providing the first comment! From my experience, whether a product (i.e. a truck) is in "essentially the same condition" is definitely a primary consideration in the trucking industry because of the wear and tear that such equipment undergoes over time. Such equipment is frequently maintained, repaired and fixed over time so as to keep it in service. Thanks for the comment!