Monday, August 22, 2011

New SC Products Liability Case: 5 Star, Inc. v. Ford Motor Co.

Recently, the South Carolina Court of Appeals issued its decision in 5 Star, Inc. v. Ford Motor Company.  You can find the opinion on page 120 here, and also here.  This is a negligent design defect case, and the court basically re-affirms that a negligence theory requires conduct evidence.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: Plaintiff 5 Star, Inc. (“Plaintiff”) is a lawn maintenance/pressure washing company.  It bought a 1996 Ford F-250 pickup truck in February 2005.  In September 2005, Plaintiff’s owner parked the truck in a warehouse containing tractors, trailers, lawnmowers, and other business equipment.  Upon returning a couple of days later, Plaintiff’s owner discovered a fire had occurred.  Although there were no personal injuries, the truck was destroyed and the building and certain equipment was severely damaged.  Before the lawsuit and before Ford could inspect the truck, Plaintiff’s owner had the truck towed and crushed.

PROCEDURE: Plaintiff filed a products liability action against Ford Motor Co. ("Ford") alleging that negligence in the design of a speed control deactivation switch in the truck caused the fire.  Ford asked the circuit court to dismiss the case as a sanction for spoliation of evidence.  The circuit court declined but instructed the jury that it could draw a negative inference from Plaintiff’s actions.  Ford moved for a directed verdict at the close of Plaintiff’s case and at the end of trial, both of which were denied.  The case was submitted to the jury exclusively on the claim of negligent design.  The jury returned a verdict for $41,000 in actual damages.

ISSUE(S): (1) Whether the circuit court erred in declining to dismiss the action as a sanction for Plaintiff’s spoliation of evidence; (2) whether the circuit court erred in denying Ford’s motion for a directed verdict based on a lack of evidence that Ford was negligent in design of the speed control deactivation switch.

DISPOSITION: The court did not reach the question of whether the circuit court abused its discretion in ruling on the motion to dismiss based on spoliation, citing to Futch v. McAllister Towing of Georgetown, Inc., 335 S.C. 598, 518 S.E.2d 591, 598 (1999) and its recognition that an appellate court need not address remaining issues when resolution of one issue is dispositive.  (See footnote 2).  With regard to denial of Ford’s directed verdict motion, the court reversed the jury verdict and entered judgment in favor of Ford.

RULES AND OPINION: In addition to the three elements common to all products liability claims, a plaintiff asserting a negligent design theory must prove that the defendant manufacturer’s conduct in designing the product breached its duty of due care.  Ford argued on appeal that Plaintiff failed to present such conduct evidence, or to present evidence that the product was in essentially the same condition as when it left the defendant (i.e., one of the three common elements).  (The court did not discuss whether the product was in essentially the same condition for the same reason that it did not address spoliation).

Instead, the court focused on Plaintiff’s failure to present evidence of negligent conduct in the design of the product on or before the time of manufacture.  The court elaborated on how a negligence theory is different in that “’[t]he focus [in a negligence action] is upon the action of the defendant.  The mere fact a product malfunctions does not demonstrate the manufacturer’s negligence.”  Quoting Sunvillas Homeowner’s Ass’n v. Square D Co., 301 S.C. 330, 333, 391 S.E.2d 868, 870 (Ct. App. 1990). 

Ford conceded the switch was defective.  However, Plaintiff was obligated to offer evidence that Ford’s conduct was negligent.  Plaintiff failed to offer any evidence of Ford’s conduct whatsoever.  Neither the City Fire Investigator witness nor Plaintiff’s cause and origin expert testified to any events at or before the manufacture of the truck and switch.  Furthermore, neither witness was qualified as an expert in automotive design or other expertise so as to enable them to offer opinions on whether Ford’s conduct was negligent.  The only other witness who could have provided conduct testimony was a desgn analysis engineer for Ford.  He was qualified as an a vehicle fire cause and origin expert, but he offered no conduct facts/opinions, and Plaintiff's counsel did not ask him any questions relating to Ford's conduct in designing the switch that occurred in 1996 or earlier.

In short, the court held that Plaintiff failed to present expert testimony to prove that Ford was negligent in its design of the switch in 1996.  Therefore, the circuit court erred in not directing a verdict in favor of Ford.  The court distinguished its opinion from the holding in Duncan v. Ford Motor Co., 285 S.C. 119, 128, 682 S.E.2d 877, 881 (Ct. App. 2009) because the plaintiff in Duncan presented expert testimony concerning Ford's conduct.  (See footnote 4). 

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1 comment:

  1. That is an interesting case. Ford admitted that the switch was defective, yet, it is still the burden of the Plaintiff to provide the evidence?

    The court system is fair to all concerned. Still, these small issues do need to be ironed out. Thanks for bring this matter into focus.