Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Case Brief: Koester v. Carolina Rental Center

By Brian A. Comer

Today's case brief is Koester v. Carolina Rental Center, Inc., 313 S.C. 490, 443 S.E.2d 392 (1994). Koester is a short case that focuses on proximate cause (i.e., foreseeability) and application of S.C. Code section 15-73-20 in a products case.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: Defendant Carolina Rental Center ("Defendant") rented tree climbing equipment to climbers. 313 S.C. at 492, 443 S.E.2d at 393. However, Defendant did not include with the rental equipment a device (a "lanyard") that prevents the climber from falling away from the tree. Id. The reason for the omission was that Defendant feared liability if the device became worn and broke during use. Id. Instead, Defendant instructed consumers to purchase a rope. Id. Plaintiff was using the rental equipment when a knot is his rope gave way, and he fell 50 feet. Id., 443 S.E.2d at 394.

PROCEDURE: Plaintiff sued for negligence, breach of warranty, and strict liability. 313 S.C. at 492, 443 S.E.2d at 394. Defendant moved for summary judgment, which was granted by the trial court and affirmed by the South Carolina Court of Appeals at Koester v. Carolina Rental Center, Inc., 311 S.C. 115, 427 S.E.2d 708 (Ct. App. 1993). Id. Plaintiff petitioned the South Carolina Supreme Court for writ of certiorari to review the Court of Appeals' decision. Id. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted the petition. Id.

ISSUES: Did the appellate court err in affirming summary judgment for Defendant?

DISPOSITION: Yes. Reversed.

RULES AND OPINION: The court reviewed the standard for summary judgment and then reviewed Plaintiff's first ground for error (relating to whether his own negligence was the proximate cause of his injuries). 313 S.C. at 493, 443 S.E.2d at 394. "The touchstone of proximate cause in South Carolina is foreseeability. Foreseeability is determined by looking to the natural and probable consequences of act complained of." Id. (citing to Young v. Tide Craft, 270 S.C. 453, 462, 242 S.E.2d 671, 675 (1978)). From the evidence in the case, Defendant knew that some of their renters did not understand the equipment, knew that a rope created a risk that a knot could fail or the rope could break, and knew that experienced climbers would not climb without the safety lanyard. Id. From this evidence, it was reasonably foreseeable that a climber would be injured using a rope instead of a lanyard. Id. Therefore, the appellate court erred in finding as a matter of law that the slipping of Plaintiff's knot was the sole proximate cause of his injuries. Id.

The appellate court also erred in finding that Plaintiff's claim was barred by S.C. Code section 15-73-20 ("If the user or consumer discovers the defect and is aware of the danger, and nevertheless proceeds unreasonably to make use of the product and is injured by it, he is barred from recovery."). Id., 443 S.E.2d at 493-94. Plaintiff attempted to use the product in the manner intended by Defendant, and therefore whether his use was unreasonable was a question of fact for the jury. Id. at 494, 443 S.E.2d at 394-95.

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