Monday, December 31, 2012

Holiday Case Brief and Verdict Survey: Gasque v. Heublein, Inc.

I hope you have enjoyed the holidays and are ready for the new year.  This has been one of my busiest times around the holidays in awhile, but I could not miss the opportunity to do a holiday season "food" post.  Last year, I tried to do a comprehensive series about South Carolina's products liability law in the context of food cases.  However, I missed one of the more interesting cases, and I thought it would be blogworthy at this time of year (especially in light of the amount of wine and champagne that will be consumed this evening).  Gasque v. Heublein, Inc., 281 S.C. 278, 315 S.E.2d 556 (Ct. App. 1984) involves a cork that prematurely ejected and caused injury to a plaintiff's eye.  An Horry County jury returned a verdict for $750,000, and the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: Plaintiff sustained permanent loss of vision in his left eye when he was struck by the stopper and cork assembly of a bottle of Jacques Bonet Cold Duck sparkling wine.    281 S.C. at 281, 315 S.E.2d at 558.  The stopper allegedly ejected prematurely when Plaintiff's friend was twisting the wire retaining hood on the cork.  Id.

PROCEDURE: Plaintiff brought suit against the manufacturer-bottlers ("Defendants") of the sparkling wine, as well as three other defendants in the chain of distribution.  281 S.C. at 281, 315 S.E.2d at 558.  Plaintiff asserted causes of action for negligence, warranty, and strict liability, and he sought actual and punitive damages.  Id.  The case was submitted to the jury on the theories of negligence and strict liability.  Id.  The jury returned a general verdict for $750,000 in actual damages against Defendants.  Id.   

ISSUES: There were three issues on appeal: (1) whether the trial court erred in submitting the issues of negligent (a) design, (b) manufacture, (c) inspection, and (d) failure to warn; (2) whether the trial court erred in admitting into evidence a filmed experiment conducted by Plaintiff's expert; and (3) whether the trial court erred in failing to grant Defendants' motion for a new trial absolute on grounds that the verdict was actuated by passion, prejudice and caprice.  281 S.C. at 281, 315 S.E.2d at 558. 

DISPOSITION: The South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court on all three issues.

OPINION: The appellate court addressed each of the issues in the order in which they were raised, as set forth below.

(1) Submission of Negligence Theories

With regard to negligent design, Plaintiff presented reports of studies commissioned by one of the Defendants concerning premature ejection of champagne stoppers.  281 S.C. at 282, 315 S.E.2d at 559.  The reports identified the problem of premature ejection and suggested design alternatives to correct it.  Id. at 282-83, 315 S.E.2d at 559.  Defendants' Quality Control Director also testified that before Defendants' switched from wood stoppers to polyethylene stoppers, they had no reports of injuries.  Id.  One of the reports also discussed the various problems with polyethylene stoppers versus wood stoppers.  Id.  In short, the evidence showed Defendants were aware of the problem of premature ejection, knew about feasible alternative designs, were aware that wood corks were safer, and elected to use an undrilled and uncoated polyethylene stopper to retain the festive "pop" of the cork.  Id. at 283, 315 S.E.2d at 559.  Plaintiff also presented expert testimony in support of his theory.  Id. at 284, 315 S.E.2d at 559.  The evidence was sufficient to submit the issue of negligent design to the jury.

With regard to negligent manufacture, Plaintiff presented the cork at issue and had his expert testify there was a groove on it that was distinguishable from other stoppers.  Id. at 284, 315 S.E.2d at 560.  Plaintiff's expert testified the groove was caused by improper attachment of the wire retainer to the stopper during manufacture, and this manufacturing defect contributed to premature ejection.  Id.  Based on this evidence, the court upheld submission of negligent manufacture to the jury.  Id.

With regard to negligent inspection, the court concluded that the testimony of Defendants' Quality Control Director supported submission of this issue to the jury.  Id. at 285, 315 S.E.2d at 560.  The director testified a pressure check was performed on only one out of every 30,000 to 40,000 bottles, and quality control personnel had only one or two seconds to ascertain whether or not the wire hood was properly attached to the stopper.  Id.

With regard to negligent failure to warn, the court concluded that the warning at issue was approximately 1/8 the size of the print used to advertise the product's name, and it did not mention premature ejection (just that the contents were under high pressure and that the bottle should be pointed away).  Id.  The court held the language of the warning, its placement, and print size created a jury question as to its adequacy.  Id.  The issue of negligent failure to wan was properly submitted to the jury.  Id.

(2) Admission Into Evidence of Filmed Experiment

To be admissible at trial, an experiment or test must have been made under conditions and circumstances substantially similar to those prevailing at the time of the occurrence involved in the controversy.  Id. at 286, 315 S.E.2d at 560 (citing Weaks v. South Carolina State Highway Dep't, 250 S.C. 535, 159 S.E.2d 234 (1968)).  Plaintiff's expert introduced a filmed experiment conducted by his expert where a stopper in the product at issue spontaneously ejected when the expert began twisting the wire retaining hood.  Id.  The trial judge allowed the jury to view the experiment.  Id.  Defendants argued the admission was error because the experiment utilized champagne (instead of sparkling wine), involved a different size bottle, and had different temperatures.  Id. at 286, 315 S.E.2d 560-61.  Plaintiff's expert testified the properties the experimental bottle were substantially the same.  Id., 315 S.E.2d at 561. 

The court noted that admission of evidence is a matter for the trial judge's discretion and will not be disturbed absent abuse of discretion.  Id.  The court also noted that Defendants vigorously cross examined the expert on the distinctions between the experiment and and facts of the case.  Id. at 287, 315 S.E.2d at 561.  The court held the conditions of the filmed experiment were substantially similar to those existing at the time of injury.  Id.  However, even if they were not, this issue did not warrant reversal because the experiment was cumulative of other evidence introduced by Plaintiff (including testimony of the friend who opened the bottle, experts, and the information contained in Defendants' reports about premature ejection).  Id. (citing Beasley v. Kerr-McGee Chem. Corp., 273 S.C. 523, 257 S.E.2d 726 (1979)).

(3) Excessiveness of Verdict

The court noted it has limited power to interfere with verdict amounts, which are left almost entirely to the judge and jury.  Id. at 287, 315 S.E.2d at 561 (citing Charles v. Texas Co., 199 S.C. 156, 18 S.E.2d 719, 729 (1942)).  The court cannot reduce a verdict, and it will only strike a verdict down completely if the amount is so shockingly excessive as to indicate it is the result of passion, caprice, and prejudice.  Id.  In view of the severity and permanency of Plaintiff's injury, the court did not find the verdict of $750,000 to be excessive.  Id. at 288, 315 S.E.2d at 562.  In short, there was substantial evidence concerning Plaintiff's pain, multiple surgeries, impact on vision, and change in lifestyle.  Id. at 288-89, 315 S.E.2d at 562.  Based on the evidence, the court did not find the verdict to be excessive.  It also reviewed verdicts for loss of vision cases elsewhere that were also similar to the jury's verdict.  Id.

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