Monday, July 16, 2012

The Basics: Proving "Defective Condition, Unreasonably Dangerous"

I have not done many "primer" posts recently because it is sometimes difficult to synthesize entire areas of South Carolina products liability law.  It can quickly become a lengthy (translated: "snoozer") blog post, or it may be better suited to be an article.  However, it occurred to me that I have never really provided the "basics" for proving one element of any products liability claim: that the product at issue be in a "defective condition, unreasonably dangerous." 

First, allow me to provide some historical context.  In South Carolina, there are three defects a plaintiff can allege: (1) manufacturing defect, (2) design defect, and (3) a warning defect.  Watson v. Ford Motor Co., 389 S.C. 434, 444, 699 S.E.2d 169, 174 (2010).  In Claytor v. General Motors Corp., 277 S.C. 259, 286 S.E.2d 129 (1982) and Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., 319 S.C. 531, 543-44, 462 S.E.2d 321, 328 (Ct. App. 1995), South Carolina's appellate courts recognized two tests that had evolved for determining whether a product is defective.  The first test was the consumer expectations test, and the second test was the risk-utility test (explained in greater detail below).  The problem was that there was no real guidance on how to apply the different tests in the context of the different theories of product defect.  Generally, plaintiffs gravitated toward the consumer expectations test, and defendants gravitated toward the risk-utility test (i.e., because they believed each test was more favorable to their respective positions).  It was also unclear whether a design defect theory required proof of reasonable alternative design (i.e., as part of the risk-utility test).  Defendants generally maintained that proof of reasonable alternative design was a requirement, and a federal case in the District of South Carolina supported this argument.  (For information concerning proof of alternative design in South Carolina, see this post).  Although it was clear South Carolina recognized both tests, it was not clear which test was favored for any particular theory of defect.

Branham v. Ford Motor Co. 390 S.C. 203, 701 S.E.2d 5 (2010), clarified things.  Without going into the details of that case, the "basics" for proving product defect can now be summarized as follows:

Manufacturing Defect:  For a manufacturing defect, Branham suggests that the consumer expectations test is the applicable analysis for determining product defect by stating "[w]hile the consumer expectations test fits well in manufacturing defect cases, we do agree with Ford that the test is ill-suited in design defect cases."  Branham, 390 S.C. at 220, 701 S.E.2d at 14Branham quotes Claytor v. General Motors Corp., for its description of the consumer expectations test.  "'The test of whether a product is or is not defective is whether the product is unreasonably dangerous to the consumer or user given the conditions and circumstances that foreseeably attend use of the product.'"  Branham, 390 S.C. at 218, 701 S.E.2d at 13 (quoting Claytor, 277 at 262, 286 S.E.2d at 131).   Paraphrased, the standard allows a jury to infer the existence of a defect if product fails to meet reasonable expectations of consumers.  Although there is nothing in Branham to indicate the risk-utility test cannot be applied in the context of a manufacturing defect, its language suggests use of the consumer expectations test.

Design Defect: As you have probably already deduced, a big issue in Branham was whether the correct test was applied in the context of a design defect claim.  After evaluating both the consumer expectations test, the risk-utility test, and their historic application in South Carolina products liability cases, the court adopted the risk-utility test for cases in which a design defect is alleged as the theory of product defect.  Branham, 390 S.C. at 222, 701 S.E.2d at 15.  Applying the risk-utility test, "'a product is unreasonably dangerous and defective if the danger associated with the use of the product outweighs the utility of the product.'"  Id. at 218-19, 701 S.E.2d at 13 (quoting Bragg, 319 S.C. at 543, 462 S.E.2d at 328).  This is a balancing test involving numerous factors for consideration, such as usefulness and desirability of the product, the cost involved for added safety, the likelihood and potential seriousness of injury, and the obviousness of the danger.  Bragg, 319 S.C. at 543-44, 462 S.E.2d at 328.  "[I]n South Carolina we balance the utility of the risk inherent in the design of the product with the magnitude of the risk to determine the reasonableness of the manufacturer's action in designing the product."  Id. at 544, 462 S.E.2d at 328.  State of the art and industry standards are also relevant to show the reasonableness of the design.  Id. at 543, 462 S.E.2d at 328.    Furthermore, in Watson v. Ford Motor Co., 389 S.C. 434, 444, 699 S.E.2d 169, 174 (2010) and 5-Star, Inc. v. Ford Motor Co., 395 S.C. 392, 718 S.E.2d 220 (Ct. App. 2011), South Carolina's appellate courts stated that the design defect cases necessarily involve sophisticated issues beyond the knowledge of the average person and therefore require expert testimony.  (For more on this element of proof, see this post). 

Warnings claim: (This blogger maintains that a warnings claim is a design defect claim by another name.  Therefore, one could argue that the risk-utility test is the applicable standard).  Nothwithstanding this argument, a plaintiff usually argues that a product failed to provide a warning (where there has been proof of duty to warn) or that the warning provided was inadequate.  Since a warnings claim relates to the product’s design, a plaintiff must provide proof of an alternative warning that would have prevented the product from being unreasonably dangerous (i.e., one that was adequate).  So, what is the test for adequacy of a warning?  South Carolina law does not require that a warning make a product itself “safe” in order to be adequate.  Aldana v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., No. 2:06-3366-CWH, 2008 WL 1883404, at *2 (Apr. 25, 2008 D.S.C.) (denying plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration of dismissal where plaintiff’s argument was that “the warnings did not make the defendant’s cigarette products safe because the cigarette products caused the decedent’s death.”).  Rather, the plaintiff’s burden is to show that a different and adequate warning would have made a difference in the conduct of the person warnedAllen v. Long Mfg. NC, Inc., 332 S.C. 422, 432, 505 S.E.2d 354, 359 (Ct. App. 1998) (citing 63A Am. Jr. 2d Products Liability § 1240 (1997)).  Therefore, determining whether a warning is adequate involves an inquiry into causation and whether a different warning would have prevented the injury.  Odom v. G.D. Searle & Co., 979 F.2d 1001 (4th Cir. 1992) (affirming district court’s grant of summary judgment in failure to warn case involving intra-uterine device where plaintiff failed to prove her doctor would have a prescribed a different course of treatment if a more drastic warning had been given).  In cases involving prescription drugs and the learned intermediary doctrine, this means that a plaintiff must establish "'the additional non-disclosed risk was sufficiently high that it would have changed the treating physician's decision to prescribe the product for the plaintiff.'"  Sauls v. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 2012 WL 724794, at *3 (D.S.C. Mar. 7, 2012) (quoting Odom v. G.D. Searle & Co., 979 F.2d 1001, 1003 (4th Cir. 1992).

As always, I invite your feedback, and hopefully this post is useful for summarizing the applicable law for this element of any South Carolina products liability claim.

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