Monday, November 16, 2009

Case Brief: Taylor v. Nix

By Brian A. Comer

This case brief is of Taylor v. Nix, 307 S.C. 551, 416 S.E.2d 619 (1992). From a product liability standpoint, it is most significant for what it says about the admissibility of recall evidence, which it holds may be admissible to show that a defective condition existed at the time alleged by a plaintiff.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: Plaintiffs Kathy and Glenn Taylor leased a Porsche from the defendants. 307 S.C. 553, 416 S.E.2d 620. They discovered multiple defects shortly after taking possession. Id. Ms. Taylor alleged headaches from fumes, that her child got a blister from touching the hot middle console in the front seat, and that her legs were reddened when she drove from their proximity to the console. Id. at 554, 416 S.E.2d at 620. They took the car to the dealer multiple times, and the dealer never did anything about the problems. Id. at 554-55, 316 S.E.2d at 620-21. Dealer representatives also treated them poorly (ignored their service requests, made off-color comments, and were generally not helpful). Id., 416 S.E.2d at 621.

PROCEDURE: Plaintiffs sued the lessor and manufacturer for breach of warranty, strict liability and violation of the Regulation of Manufacturers, Distributors and Dealers Act (the "Act"). 307 S.C. at 553, 416 S.E.2d at 620. A jury found that the defendants maliciously violated the Act and returned a verdict of $16,100 in actual damages and three times the actual damages (the maximum under the Act). Id. at 555, 416 S.E.2d at 621.

ISSUES: Defendants appealed multiple issues relating to the Act, the award of attorneys' fees, and admissibility of certain pieces of evidence. 307 S.C. at 553, 416 S.E.2d at 620.

DISPOSITION: The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the trial court decision. 307 S.C. at 558, 416 S.E.2d at 623.

RULES AND OPINION: The Act adequately provides notice of what conduct is prohibited under it, and it is not unconstitutionally vague. 307 S.C. at 555, 416 S.E.2d at 621. Though the trial court's charge as to the definition of "arbitrary" under the Act was erroneous, it was not prejudicial and the defendants were not harmed because of it. Id. at 555-56, 416 S.E.2d at 621. With regard to damages under the Act, the trial court charged that the jury should assess actual damages under the breach of warrranty and strict liability claims and then determine only if the defendants' conduct violated the statute. Id. at 556, 416 S.E.2d at 622. This was erroneous. Id. The jury should have been charged to determine what damage arose from the defendants' conduct which constituted a violation of the Act. Id. Even so, the defendants were not prejudiced because any actual damages suffered by the Plaintiffs resulted from the defendants' acts, which violated the Act. Id. There was also sufficient evidence to find "malice" by the defendants under the Act so as to justify treble damages. Id. at 556-57, 416 S.E.2d at 622.

Defendants also challenged the awarding of attorneys' fees by saying that the portion related to the non-statutory actions (breach of warranty and strict liability) should have been excluded from consideration. 307 S.C. at 557, 416 S.E.2d at 622. Though the appellate court agreed, the defendants' presentation to the lower court of what would have constituted reasonable fees was not adequate. Id. The party asserting the right to attorneys fees has to provide an itemized affidavit of their fees which they believe are related to the statutory claim. Id. The party opposing the fees has the burden of showing which of the fees are clearly unrelated. Id.

With regard to evidentiary issues, Ms. Taylor's notes itemizing malfunctions of the car were prepared prior to taking it for service, making them admissible as a witness's past recollection. 3-7 S.C. 557, 416 S.E.2d at 622. The court held that subsequent remedial measures, though inadmissible to show negligence, may be admissible for other purposes, such as showing that the defective condition existed at the time alleged. Id. at 558, 416 S.E.2d at 623. Therefore, the subsequent recall of the car due to overheating of the catalytic converter was admissible for this purpose. Id.

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