Thursday, October 7, 2010

Case Brief: Nelson v. Coleman Co.

Today's case brief is Nelson v. Coleman Co., Inc., 249 S.C. 652, 155 S.E.2d 917 (Ct. App. 1967). This case involves a floor furnace and outlines a manufacturer's duty to test and inspect components in its products. It also discusses circumstantial evidence in a negligence case and the consequences of a defendant's failure to present its own evidence in response to a plaintiff's case. Specifically, although the decision admits that South Carolina does not recognize the Res Ipsa Loquitor doctrine, if a plaintiff is injured and provides circumstantial evidence to explain the cause of the injury, then a defendant proceeds at his own peril by not responding.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: Plaintiff Homeowner purchased an oil burning floor furnace from Defendant Manufacturer through Defendant's authorized dealer. 249 S.C. at 655, 155 S.E.2d at 919. The dealer installed the furnace, and sixteen hours later, it emitted sparks and flames and destroyed the house and its contents. Id.

PROCEDURE: Plaintiff sued Defendant on negligence grounds. 249 S.C. at 655, 155 S.E.2d at 919. At trial, Defendant moved for nonsuit and directed verdict at the conclusion of Plaintiff's case, and without offering testimony or evidence of its own. Id. at 656, 155 S.E.2d at 919. The motions were denied, and the jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff. Id. Defendant moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial, and both motions were denied. Id. Defendant appealed the denial of its motions by the trial court.

ISSUES: Defendant raised various different evidentiary and legal rulings as the basis for the appeal, including whether there was sufficient evidence of negligence and damages.

DISPOSITION: The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the rulings of the trial court. 249 S.C. at 662, 155 S.E.2d at 922.

RULES AND OPINION: The furnace was delivered from Defendant and installed at Plaintiff's residence without any changes to its condition. 249 S.C. at 655, 155 S.E.2d at 919. Plaintiff offered expert testimony that the fire was caused by a malfunctioning of the fuel regulator, which allowed oil to go into the burner and overflow and burn outside the furnace. Id. at 656, 155 S.E.2d at 919. Plaintiff's expert further testified that the defect in the fuel regulator was not apparent and could only be detected by testing conducted before shipping of the product. Id. at 657, 155 S.E.2d at 920. Defendant contended that the fuel regulator was manufactured by a third-party. Id. Although it was a component to Defendant's product, Defendant contended that it had no duty to test and inspect the component. Id. Even if it had a duty, Defendant contended there was no evidence that it failed to fulfill this duty. Id. The court stated the applicable law as follows:
It is generally held that a manufacturer who incorporates into his product a component made by another has a responsibility to test and inspect such component, and that his negligent failure properly to perform such duty renders him liable for injuries proximately caused thereby.
Id. In this context, the court believed that Plaintiff had provided sufficient circumstantial evidence to support that the fire was caused by the malfunctioning fuel regulator and that the defect could have been discovered by the Defendant with proper inspection and testing. Id. at 658, 155 S.E.2d at 920. Therefore, with regard to the sufficiency of evidence of negligence, there was no error in refusing the Defendant's motions. Id.

Defendant also contested whether Plaintiff had provided competent evidence to support a finding of money damages. Id. Plaintiff presented evidence that the reasonable value of items lost in the fire was $11,198.20, which included a list compiled by Plaintiff of the personal property lost in the fire. Id. at 659, 155 S.E.2d at 921. The court found that it was reasonable for Plaintiff to provide his own estimate of the value of the personal property, and there was no error in refusing Defendant's motions on grounds of insufficient evidence of damages. Id.

Defendant also contested that the trial judge erred in sustaining Plaintiff's objection to certain questions posed to Plaintiff's expert witness, i.e., "Is it customery in the trade for the manufacturers of these regulators to test them after they are manufactured." Id. at 660, 155 S.E.2d at 921. The court found that the trial judge's decision to sustain Plaintiff's objection to this question was not error because Defendant was able to pose a similar question to Plaintiff's expert and get his answer. Id. at 660-61, 155 S.E.2d at 921.

Defendant also asserted that Plaintiff's argument to the jury that Defendant had failed to produce witnesses or offer testimony was improper. Id. at 661, 155 S.E.2d at 922. The court disagreed, stating "We have held in a number of cases that it is proper for counsel to comment on the fact that the defendant has not taken the stand or offered testimony. It would be error in a criminal case so to do but not in a civil case. " Id. Therefore, the court held that this exception by Defendant was meritless. Id.

Finally, Defendant objected to the trial judge's charge that if a party fails to produce testimony of an available witness on a material issue, then the jury may infer that such testimony (if presented) would be adverse to the party failing to call the witness. Id. at 661-662, 155 S.E.2d at 922. Defendant's objection was that the trial judge left out the requirement that the witness be "available." Id. at 662, 155 S.E.2d at 922. However, the court found that Defendant had not properly preserved this objection at trial (i.e., Defendant did not request any clarification, amplification, or other curative measure by the trial judge). Id.

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