Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fourth of July Case Brief: Hatfield v. Atlas Enterprises, Inc.

Wherever you are spending your Fourth of July holiday, it is likely in close proximity to some fireworks.  This made me wonder: are there any South Carolina products liability cases involving fireworks?  I did the obligatory electronic searches: "products liability" and . . . "fireworks," "roman candles," "bottle rockets," "m-80s" . . . you get the idea.  I am sure I missed some terms, but I found one case, and it makes for a very short case brief.  So, enjoy Hatfield v. Atlas Enterprises, Inc., 274 S.C. 247, 262 S.E.2d 900 (1980), the "lone fireworks products liability case" (I have found) in South Carolina.

Factual Background: Plaintiff was injured at father's fireworks store when a spark allegedly ignited fireworks.

Procedure: Plaintiff (through her guardian ad litem) brought suit against fireworks manufacturers for negligence, strict liability and breach of warranty.  Defendants filed a demurrer to Plaintiff's strict liability claim on grounds that South Carolina did not recognize strict liability at the time the cause of action arose (i.e., December 17, 1970).  The trial court sustained the demurrer.

Issues:  Whether the trial court erred in sustaining the demurrer.

Disposition:  Affirmed and remanded for further proceedings.

Rules and Procedure: The doctrine of strict liability in tort, imposed as a result of a product's defective condition, did not emerge until the South Carolina Legislature enacted S.C. Code sections 15-73-10 (1976) et seq.  Because Plaintiff's injury pre-dated the enactment, strict liability in tort was not recognized as the common law of South Carolina at the time.  The court also held this provision should not be applied retrospectively based on reasoning in Hyder v. Jones, 271 S.C. 85, 87-89, 245 S.E.2d 123 (1978).  Finally, while those engaged in abnormally dangerous activities have been held strictly liable for damages, this doctrine has not been extended to the manufacturers or distributors of ultrahazardous products outside of the context of Restatement of Torts (Second) section 402A.  Therefore, the court declined to extend it in this case.

Happy Fourth of July!

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