By Brian A. Comer
I'm sure many folks who have stumbled across my site as a result of the Branham v. Ford Motor Co. case are looking at the case "brief" below, and their eyes are glazing over at its sheer length. Trust me, it took awhile to digest the case and write it. So...what's the "meat of the coconut" as a former colleague of mine used to say? Here are my "Ten Takeaways from Branham v. Ford Motor Co."
(1) Where strict liability and negligence are asserted as product liability claims in South Carolina, failure to prove an element that is common to both results in a directed verdict of both. In other words, if you cannot prove the product was defective and unreasonably dangerous for one of the claims, then the other does not survive either. Although there may be circumstances where one of the claims survives, it depends on the basis of the dismissal of the other claim.
(2) There is no separate "failure to test" claim apart from the duty to design and manufacture a product that is not defective and unreasonably dangerous. (This is significant to me, as "failure to test" has become a prevalent theory, especially in drug and medical device cases).
(3) As a sports talk radio host that I listen to says, "POWWWWWWWWW!!!!"....the consumer expectations test is GONE in a South Carolina design defect case. The risk-utility test is now the exclusive test, and it requires proof of feasible alternative design. Also, in supporting this holding, the Court cited extensively to the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability, which opens the door to its adoption in South Carolina.
(4) "The use of post-distribution evidence to evaluate a product's design through the lens of hindsight is improper." Admission of it is prejudicial.
(5) Although evidence of other incidents must be "substantially similar" and tend to prove or disprove some fact in dispute to be admissible, this issue is not even examined if the evidence is post-distribution evidence (see number 4). If it is pre-manufacture, then the Court will look at whether the data is relevant to an issue, even if the specific cause of the other incident is not known (e.g., comparative rollover data).
(6) You cannot inflame the passion and prejudice of the jury with inadmissible and prejudicial evidence in your closing argument. Period.
(7) If co-defendants are joint tortfeasors under the law, then it is improper to apportion fault on the jury form.
(8) The "harm to others" prohibition is alive and well in South Carolina when it comes to punitive damages. Trying to convince a jury that they should punish a manufacturer for all other injuries/deaths/etc. is forbidden by South Carolina and federal authority.
(9) When it comes to evidence for punitive damages, net worth is the safest harbor. Although admission of extrapolated financial data (down to hourly and daily income) has not been found to be abuse of discretion, the Court indicated there could be a limit to this kind of evidence. Furthermore, if you start getting into compensation of executives, stock options, etc., you are asking for reversal on the basis of prejudice.
(10) Courts have authority to re-align parties at any time and at their discretion.