Thursday, March 28, 2013

New SC Products Liability Decision: Courtney v. Nissan Motor Co., Ltd

Yesterday, the South Carolina Court of Appeals issued a new products liability decision, Courtney v. Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., Opinion Number 5106.  There were some real procedural issues in this case at the trial court level that prompted appeals by both the plaintiff and Nissan.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: Minor plaintiff ("Plaintiff") was riding in the backseat of a 2000 Nissan Xterra.  As Plaintiff's father made a left turn, the automobile was struck by an oncoming vehicle on the right side.  Upon impact, a part of the automobile's frame punctured the fuel tank, resulting in a fire that injured Plaintiff and her mother.

PROCEDURE:  Plaintiff filed suit against Nissan alleging strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty based on a design defect theory.  The case was tried over nine days.  At the conclusion of evidence, the court denied Nissan's request to charge the jury on the necessity of proving feasible alternative design as an element of Plaintiff's case.  The parties and the trial court agreed to submit seven special interrogatories to the jury, but the interrogatory concerning proof of feasible alternative design was to be shown to the jury after any verdict for damages.  Nissan objected and requested that this interrogatory be submitted with the others.  The trial court denied the request.   

The trial court did not differentiate between the consumer expectations test and risk utility test during its general charge to the jury on what Plaintiff had to prove in a design defect case.  Although it later charge the jury on both tests, it omitted that Plaintiff had to prove a feasible design alternative pursuant to the risk-utility test.  Prior to sending the jury to deliberate, the trial court told the jury it would be answering one additional interrogatory after the verdict was returned that was "irrelevant" to the deliberations.

The jury rendered a verdict against Nissan for $2,375,000.  The court then posed the seventh interrogatory to the jury (i.e., whether Plaintiff had proved a feasible alternative design that would have prevented the injury).  The jury responded, "no." 

Nissan filed a post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict ("JNOV"), or in the alternative, for a new trial.  Plaintiff filed a post-trial motion requesting the court disregard the jury's response to the seventh interrogatory.  Initially, the trial court denied both parties' motions.  However, three days later, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued its decision in Branham v. Ford Motor Co., 390 S.C. 203, 701 S.E.2d 5 (2010) in which it held that the risk-utility test was the exclusive test in a design defect case and required proof of feasible alternative design.  The trial court had a second hearing, and it denied Nissan's JNOV motion but granted the motion for a new trial.  Recognizing Branham, the trial court issued an order in which it concluded its decision not to charge the jury on proof of a feasible alternative design was reversible error and required the grant of a new trial.

ISSUES: Nissan appealed denial of its post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict based on Plaintiff's failure to prove feasible alternative design.  Plaintiff also appealed the circuit court's decision to grant a new trial.  Plaintiff also claimed the circuit court erred in denying her motion to invalidate a special interrogatory in which the jury found Plaintiff failed to prove a feasible alternative design in her case against Nissan.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed by the South Carolina Court of Appeals.

RULES AND OPINION: The appellate court first addressed whether Branham applied retroactively to the instant case.  It reviewed Branham's facts and law and concluded that the South Carolina Supreme Court intended for Branham to have retroactive application.   Branham recognized no new right or cause of action; it only affirmed that the risk-utility test would be the exclusive test for design defect cases.  

Next, the appellate court held that the jury's post-verdict finding that Plaintiff failed to prove feasible alternative design did not entitled Nissan to JNOV.  Nissan pointed out evidence in the record that Plaintiff agreed to craft the special interrogatory specifically to address feasible alternative design issues.  Although the appellate court agreed, it cited to Erickson v. Jones St. Publishers, LLC, 368 S.C. 444, 480, 629 S.E. 2d 653, 672 (2006) for the principle that it is improper to submit factual issues to the jury in the form of non-binding "advisory interrogatories."  Accordingly, the appellate court found that the trial court's denial of the JNOV motion indicated neither the parties nor the trial court intended for the answer to the interrogatory to be dispositive on the issue of liability.  It also pointed out portions of the record to support that Plaintiff did not intend for the seventh interrogatory to impact liability. 

With regard to Plaintiff's cross appeal that the trial court erred in granting a new trial because the consumer expectations test was permissible at the time of decision, the appellate court pointed out it had already addressed this argument (i.e., Branham's retroactive application).  The appellate court also re-reviewed portions of Branham to highlight that the both the majority and dissent agreed that the risk-utility test was the proper test in a design defect case, and the appellate court did not believe the the majority or dissent expressly condoned use of the consumer expectations test at the time of the instant trial. 

Finally, Plaintiff argued that because the trial court charged on both the consumer expectations and risk-utility test, and the jury did not specify which theory it applied to determine liability, then the "two-issue rule" and the law of the case doctrine required reinstatement of the jury's verdict.  The appellate court disagreed that these doctrines applied.  Furthermore, Branham's holding made clear that the jury's verdict could not be supported by the consumer expectations test.  Although Nissan did not challenge the trial court's decision to incorporate the consumer expectations test into its jury charge, Branham had not been decided at the time and Nissan would not have had grounds to object.  Therefore, Nissan's failure to object did not require reinstatement.  The trial court's failure to properly instruct the jury was prejudicial to Nissan and required a new trial.

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