Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Very Nice Prose, Your Honor

By Brian A. Comer

I'm working on an article and came across the late Judge K.K. Hall's opinion in Vaughn v. Nissan Motor Corp., 77 F.3d 736 (4th Cir. 1996) (applying South Carolina law). As quick background, Vaughn is an automotive case in which the plaintiff filed a products liability action for injuries sustained due to an allegedly defective voltage regulator. The plaintiff claimed that the voltage regulator failed while she was driving, which caused excessive current, which caused the battery fluid to boil. She claimed that she inhaled the toxic fumes and suffered from vocal chord dysfunction and reactive airway dysfunction syndrome, a severe form of asthma.

I'll brief the case at a later date. For the time being, my only reason for doing a blog post on the case is that I liked how the judge described the concept of "defect" under South Carolina law. Aside from its entertainment value, I think it would go a long way toward explaining the concept to a jury.

Not every “defect,” as the term is commonly used, subjects a seller to strict liability. The “defect” must cause the product to be unreasonably dangerous. A car with a bad radio is not unreasonably dangerous; a car with bad brakes may be. Moreover, whether the defect causes the product to be “unreasonably dangerous” is measured by the “ordinary consumer” for whom the product is designed. A circular saw would be quite dangerous if used by a blind man, but a properly designed and manufactured saw is safe and useful to an ordinary person. Consequently, circular saws are not per se defective, notwithstanding a fingerless blind man here and there.

Very nice prose, Your Honor. The lesson? If you come across any fingerless blind men, it's best not to bring up the subject of power tools.

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