By Brian A. Comer
Today's case brief is Moore v. Barony House Restaurant, LLC, 382 S.C. 35, 674 S.E.2d 500 (Ct. App. 2009). This is (predominantly) a warnings case, and its significance relates to the concept that there is no duty to warn of open and obvious dangers associated with use of a product.
FACTUAL BACKGROUND: A doctor hosted a Christmas party in 2004 in which folks had socialized at one section of his property and then were transported to a different section across a public road for dinner. 382 S.C. at 38, 673 S.E.2d at 502. The deceased worked for the caterer and was in charge of transporting party-goers to the dinner section of the property via a golf cart. Id. Plaintiff attempted to cross the road in a golf cart that was not equipped with lights. Id. An SUV was approaching, did not see the golf cart in time, struck the cart, and killed the driver. Id. at 39, 673 S.E.2d at 502.
PROCEDURE: The deceased's estate ("Plaintiff") brought suit against the various parties responsible for the party (the doctor, caterer, golf cart manufacturer, etc.). 382 S.C. at 39, 674 S.E.2d at 502. Against the manufacturer, Plaintiff alleged causes of action for strict liability based on the manufacturer's used fleet golf cars being unreasonably dangerous in light of their foreseeable use and based on inadequate warnings. Id. Plaintiff also alleged negligence based on a failure to warn. Id. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer on these claims, and Plaintiff appealed. 382 S.C. at 40, 674 S.E.2d at 503.
ISSUES: Whether the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on Plaintiff's strict liability and negligence claims relating to the manufacturer's alleged failure to warn. 382 S.C. at 40, 674 S.E.2d at 503.
DISPOSITION: The South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment by the trial court. 382 S.C. at 43, 674 S.E.2d at 504.
RULES AND OPINION: The Court first addressed Plaintiff's strict liability claim. 382 S.C. 40, 674 S.E.2d at 503. Plaintiff contended that the golf car was defective and unreasonably dangerous because the manufacturer marketed the used fleet golf cars for operation on public roads without affixing lights and reflective devices or without providing warnings. Id. at 41, 674 S.E.2d at 503. The Court disagreed and stated that while lights and reflectors would make the carts more safe, the absence of such optional safety features did not make the cart defective. Id. "'Most any product can be made more safe . . . . [A] bicycle is more safe if equipped with lights and a bell, but the fact that one is not so equipped does not create the inference that the bicycle is defective and unreasonably dangerous." Id. (quoting Marchant v. Mitchell Distrib. Co., 270 S.C. 29, 35-36, 240 S.E.2d 511, 513 (1977)). The Court also disagreed with Plaintiff's contention that the golf cart was defective and unreasonably dangerous because the manufacturer failed to provide adequate warnings regarding operation at night and on public roads. Id. The Court acknowledged that a product may be defective and unreasonably dangerous if it is not accompanied by an adequate warning. Id. at 41, 674 S.E.2d at 503-04. However, the Court recognized that a seller is not required to warn of dangers or potential dangers that are generally known and recognized. Id. "[O]peration of an unlighted golf car on a public highway at night presents an open and obvious risk." Id. at 42, 675 S.E.2d at 504. Therefore, the golf cart was not defective and unreasonably dangerous for failure to include a warning about nighttime operation. Id.
With regard to Plaintiff's negligence claim, the Court reiterated that there is no duty to warn of dangers that are open and obvious. Id. at 42, 674 S.E.2d at 504. Furthermore, the Court stated that although questions of negligence are often for the jury, "when the risk complained of is open and obvious to consumers, there is no duty to warn of that risk as a matter of law." Id. The Court also believed that the deceased's negligence in operating the golf cart would prohibit a recovery under a negligence theory as a matter of law. Id. at 43, 674 S.E.2d at 504.