Monday, June 29, 2009

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

By Brian A. Comer

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

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 how a party may still be liable even if a product was not in essentially the same condition.
Liability Despite A Change in the Product's Condition: A defendant may still be liable under South Carolina law even if a product is not in essentially the same condition. "'Liability [may] . . . be imposed upon a manufacturer or seller notwithstanding subsequent alteration of the product . . . [when] the alteration could have been anticipated by the manufacturer or seller, or did not causally contribute to the damages or injuries complained of.'" Fleming v. Borden, 316 S.C. 452, 458, 450 S.E.2d 589, 593 (1994) (quoting Robert D. Hersh & Henry J. Bailey, American Law of Products Liability 2d § 130 (1974)).
With regard to whether an alteration is "foreseeable," this aspect of the analysis correlates directly with one of South Carolina's tests for whether a product is in a defective condition, unreasonably dangerous for its intended use. See Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., 319 S.C. 531, 543, 462 S.E.2d 321, 328 (1995) ("The first test is whether the product is unreasonably dangerous to the ordinary consumer or user given the conditions and circumstances that foreseeably attend the use of the product.") (emphasis added). If a jury can determine that an alteration was a foreseeable circumstance based on the product's design, then a defendant may be liable despite the fact that a product is not in "essentially the same condition." See, e.g., Kennedy v. Custom Ice Equip. Co., Inc., 271 S.C. 171, 246 S.E.2d 176 (1978) (holding that there was evidence from which a jury could have determined that modifications to an ice-making machine were a foreseeable circumstance that required the incorporation of protective shields in the machine's design, and affirming submission of the case to the jury); Fleming v. Borden, 316 S.C. 452, 450 S.E.2d 589 (1994) (holding that expert testimony concerning a manufacturer's design and placement of a machine created a jury question as to whether removal of a platform for cleaning it was a foreseeable alteration, and reversing the trial court's decision to grant a directed verdict for the manufacturer).
Whether a modification causally contributed to a party's injuries does not appear to have been the focus of many South Carolina cases. Small v. Pioneer Machinery, Inc., 329 S.C. 448, 494 S.E.2d 835 (Ct. App. 1997), is the best example and involved a plaintiff who worked in the timber industry and was injured by a falling limb. The plaintiff claimed that the cause of the accident was a design defect in a log skidder. Id. at 455-60, 494 S.E.2d at 838-41. There was evidence that a log skidder was missing its driver's side door and its hand throttle. Id. at 466, 494 S.E.2d at 844. There was also testimony that neither the hand brake nor the foot brake on the log skidder were operable at the time of the accident. Id. Nevertheless, the jury found that the alterations did not causally contribute to the accident, and the South Carolina Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err in submitting the case to the jury. Id.
This concludes this series of posts about this element of all South Carolina product liability law actions. You can find all of the installments, and other information pertaining to this particular element, by clicking here or on the "Same Condition" topic tag to the right of the page.
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