Wednesday, June 17, 2009

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

By Brian A. Comer

This is the fourth installment of a series based on some research I have been doing for an article. The first three installments can be found here (part I), and here (part II), and here (part III).

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.
Today I'm going to profile the fourth factor: the degree to which a product has undergone maintenance. Whether a product is in "essentially the same condition" may depend on its maintenance history. This factor may overlap with "subsequent mishandling," depending on the nature of the maintenance involved.
The best case (involving interpretation of South Carolina law) that I have found that references a product's maintenance record is Oglesby v. Gen. Motors Corp., 190 F.3d 244 (4th Cir. 1999). Oglesby involved a truck's radiator hose that detached and sprayed hot coolant on the plaintiff mechanic. Id. at 247. The truck was purchased "used" in 1991 and had 156,000 miles on it at the time of the 1995 injury. Id. at 252. The record did not include any information concerning the prior owner's repair or maintenance records. Id. After the 1991 purchase, the truck's owner removed the radiator on at least two occasions and had removed and repaired its hoses. Id. The court believed that the inlet connector on the hose could have been damaged during either of those repairs due to improper removal, handling or installation. Id. In addition to pointing out the potential impact of this maintenance, the court also stated that the inlet connector may have been damaged due to engine overheating. Id. "Without evidence demonstrating the condition of the inlet connector when it was sold by General Motors and left its custody, [the plaintiff] cannot carry his burden under South Carolina law for proving strict liability and breach of warranty." Id. The court also found that the plaintiff had not offered any evidence of negligence by General Motors. Id.
From the opinion, Oglesby focuses on a product's maintenance, as well as "wear and tear." Furthermore, the court's statements concerning improper removal, handling or installation of the radiator also suggest that the case ties in with the "subsequent mishandling" component of this analysis. From my review of the case law, the courts do not appear to distinguish between the factors in the manner in which I have set them forth in this series. Clearly, there can be some overlap between "subsequent mishandling" and maintenance, as I have distinguished them in this series. However, I liked how the court in Oglesby categorized the actions of the truck owner a little more innocuously, i.e. as routine maintenance, than how the court categorized the boat repairman's actions in Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., 319 S.C. 531, 462 S.E.2d 321 (Ct. App. 1995).
The point to remember is that a person's actions do not have to be as extreme as the "splicing" that occurred in Bragg. It may just be a matter of doing general maintenance improperly, or overtightening a bolt, that causes a product to not be in "essentially the same condition." See Claytor v. General Motors Corp., 277 S.C. 259, 286 S.E.2d 129 (1982) (holding that that cracks in and subsequent breakdown of the lug bolts on a tire were the result of subsequent mishandling of the product at issue (i.e., due to over-tightening) and affirming a directed verdict by the trial court).
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