Showing posts with label Evidence of Other Incidents. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Evidence of Other Incidents. Show all posts

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Holiday Season Food Law: "It's a beautiful duck...but it's smiling at me."

video

Last Christmas, I enjoyed blogging about South Carolina warnings law and food products, including posting the infamous dry turkey scene from the holiday classic, "Christmas Vacation."  As the holiday season is upon us, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit this topic on a broader scale by doing a survey of South Carolina products liability law in the context of case law involving food and drink.  The Chinese turkey scene from "A Christmas Story" seemed like an appropriate way to begin this topic.  Can Ralphie's dad recover if he is traumatized by a turkey "smiling" at him? 

(Before we tackle this age old question and dive into this area of law, allow me one caveat.  This analysis does not include a review of "food" cases where the food at issue was consumed by livestock, pigs, household pets, or other non-humans.  Although I do not deny that these cases implicate products liability law, that is a post for another day).

South Carolina's general food/beverage case law appears to break down into the following categories: exploding beverage bottles, "hard" substances in food, food containing a wayward insect, and otherwise spoiled/adulterated food that leads to someone becoming sick.

Let's tackle the first topic in today's post.

♪ ♫  On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...A BOTTLE THAT EXPLODED♪ ♫

These cases are harder to come by in the era of plastic bottles, but I found three South Carolina cases involving glass bottles that exploded and resulted in injury.  The theories of liability include some combination/variation of the following: (1) selling a bottle that is likely to explode from excess pressure; (2) selling bottles likely to explode because of some defect in the bottle; (3) failure to take the necessary precautions in filling the bottles at the manufacturing plant; (4) failing to provide a bottle of sufficient strength; (5) failure to use due care in the manufacture of the bottle; and (6) failure to use due care in the filling of the bottle of liquid.  See, e.g., Boyd v. Marion Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 240 S.C. 383, 384, 126 S.E.2d 178, 179 (1962).

For example, in Merchant v. Columbia Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 214 S.C. 206, 51 S.E.2d 749 (1949), the plaintiff was was injured from fragments of glass after one of four bottles she picked up exploded.  She alleged a negligence claim against the defendant by reason of some bottle defect or because of excessive gas pressure.  Id. at 208, 51 S.E.2d at 750.  After presentation of the evidence at trial, the defendant moved for a non-suit.  The trial court granted the motion because it believed there was insufficient evidence to submit the case to the jury without invoking the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which is not applicable in South Carolina.  Id.   (For your information, the doctrine is still not recognized today.  See, e.g., Watson v. Ford Motor Co., 389 S.C. 434, 452-53, 699 S.E.2d 169, 179 (2010) ("We also note that Respondents may not rely solely on the fact that an accident occurred to prove their products liability case under a negligence theory since South Carolina does not follow the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.")). 

However, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the trial court on appeal.  The basis for the reversal was that the appellate court found that the plaintiff had provided evidence that both prior and subsequent to the plaintiff's injury, bottles of Coca Cola bottled and distributed by the defendant to the retailer had burst and exploded under similar circumstances.  Merchant, 214 S.C. at 211, 51 S.E.2d at 751-52.  Specifically, the store clerk testified that the store had nothing to do with the actual handling of the crates of soft drink other than to remove the top crate when it became empty.  Id. at 209, 51 S.E.2d at 750-51.  He also testified bottles had exploded prior to the plaintiff's incident, and in the same manner, and another bottle from the same shipment exploded about two hours after plaintiff's incident.  Id.  Another employee provided similar corroborating testimony.  Id. at 209, 51 S.E.2d at 751. 

Based on the evidence, the court was not concerned with whether to apply res ipsa loquitorId. at 210, 51 S.E.2d at 751.  Instead, it believed that the circumstantial evidence was sufficient to take the case to the jury on the issue of negligence.  Id.  Citing to a North Carolina case, the court stated the one exploding bottle is not enough to make a case for neglience.  Id.  However, quoting from the same North Carolina case, the court adopted the following as a "sound rule of law" in cases involving multiple exploding bottles:
But in cases where compensation is sought for injury caused by such explosion, the rule established by this court is that when it is made to appear that other bottles filled by the same bottler, under similar circumstances, about the same time, have exploded, there is afforded some evidence of negligence sufficient to be submitted to the jury, as it would thus form the basis for the permissible inference that the bottler had not exercised that degree of care required of him under the circumstances.  And this court has been careful, before permitting plaintiff's case to be submitted to the jury, to require that plaintiff offer evidence of other instances of bottles filled by defendant exploding under "substantially similar circumstances and reasonable proximity in time."
Id. at 210-11, 51 S.E.2d at 751 (quoting Davis v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Asheville, 228 N.C. 32, 44 S.E.2d 337 (1947) (citations omitted).  A later case, Boyd v. Marion Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 240 S.C. 383, 126 S.E.2d 178 (1962), had similar facts and reached the same holding and rule of law. 

Together, Merchant and Boyd are cases where the bottle exploded and glass fragments injured the plaintiff.  However, there is another case where the explosion of the bottle itself is not what caused the plaintiff's injury.  Instead, the plaintiff was injured in a typical "slip and fall" case while cleaning up the mess from the exploding bottle. 

For a fascinating case that is a treasure trove of information on proximate causation, foreseeability, intervening acts, contributory negligence, and assumption of risk, be sure to look at Wallace v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., 300 S.C. 518, 389 S.E.2d 155 (Ct. App. 1989).  This case is way too "meaty" to summarize in this post (and I plan to make it a future "Case Brief").  However, rest assured that it includes heavy analysis of these concepts to basically hold that a bottler can be liable if a consumer is injured while cleaning up the mess from a bottle that has exploded.  I am not sure that I agree with the holding, but it is an interesting opinion.  The nutshell is that the court held that the consumer's attempt to clean up the spill was a foreseeable response and did not break the chain of causation.  Id. at 520-22, 389 S.E.2d at 156-57. Furthermore, contributory negligence was not applicable based on the nature of the product liability claims.  Id. at 522-24, 389 S.E.2d at 157-58.  Finally, the consumer's choice to remove the hazard created by the spill was not a voluntary assumption of risk; the consumer really had no choice but to attempt the clean-up.  Id. at 524-25, 389 S.E.2d at 158-59.

Be on the lookout for the next post, where I will address the dreaded "hard substance" in food products.

Happy Holidays!

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Ten Takeaways from Branham v. Ford Motor Co.

By Brian A. Comer

I'm sure many folks who have stumbled across my site as a result of the Branham v. Ford Motor Co. case are looking at the case "brief" below, and their eyes are glazing over at its sheer length. Trust me, it took awhile to digest the case and write it. So...what's the "meat of the coconut" as a former colleague of mine used to say? Here are my "Ten Takeaways from Branham v. Ford Motor Co."

(1) Where strict liability and negligence are asserted as product liability claims in South Carolina, failure to prove an element that is common to both results in a directed verdict of both. In other words, if you cannot prove the product was defective and unreasonably dangerous for one of the claims, then the other does not survive either. Although there may be circumstances where one of the claims survives, it depends on the basis of the dismissal of the other claim.

(2) There is no separate "failure to test" claim apart from the duty to design and manufacture a product that is not defective and unreasonably dangerous. (This is significant to me, as "failure to test" has become a prevalent theory, especially in drug and medical device cases).

(3) As a sports talk radio host that I listen to says, "POWWWWWWWWW!!!!"....the consumer expectations test is GONE in a South Carolina design defect case. The risk-utility test is now the exclusive test, and it requires proof of feasible alternative design. Also, in supporting this holding, the Court cited extensively to the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability, which opens the door to its adoption in South Carolina.

(4) "The use of post-distribution evidence to evaluate a product's design through the lens of hindsight is improper." Admission of it is prejudicial.

(5) Although evidence of other incidents must be "substantially similar" and tend to prove or disprove some fact in dispute to be admissible, this issue is not even examined if the evidence is post-distribution evidence (see number 4). If it is pre-manufacture, then the Court will look at whether the data is relevant to an issue, even if the specific cause of the other incident is not known (e.g., comparative rollover data).

(6) You cannot inflame the passion and prejudice of the jury with inadmissible and prejudicial evidence in your closing argument. Period.

(7) If co-defendants are joint tortfeasors under the law, then it is improper to apportion fault on the jury form.

(8) The "harm to others" prohibition is alive and well in South Carolina when it comes to punitive damages. Trying to convince a jury that they should punish a manufacturer for all other injuries/deaths/etc. is forbidden by South Carolina and federal authority.

(9) When it comes to evidence for punitive damages, net worth is the safest harbor. Although admission of extrapolated financial data (down to hourly and daily income) has not been found to be abuse of discretion, the Court indicated there could be a limit to this kind of evidence. Furthermore, if you start getting into compensation of executives, stock options, etc., you are asking for reversal on the basis of prejudice.

(10) Courts have authority to re-align parties at any time and at their discretion.

This post is subject to the DISCLAIMER & TERMS OF USE of this website.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Case Brief: Branham v. Ford Motor Co.

By Brian A. Comer

Below is a case brief of the South Carolina Supreme Court's August 16, 2010 decision in Branham v. Ford Motor Co. (first posted about here). This is not that "brief," but bear in mind that the majority opinion alone is about 25 pages and will probably be the new authority on products liability law in South Carolina for years to come.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: Cheryl Hale ("Hale") purchased a used 1987 Ford Bronco II 4x2 in June of 1999. The vehicle was manufactured in 1986 and had 137,500 miles on it. On June 17, 2001, Hale was driving with her child in the passenger seat and Plaintiff Jesse Branham, III ("Plaintiff") in the backseat. No one was wearing a seatbelt. Hale turned to the backseat to ask the children to quiet down. When doing this, she veered toward the shoulder of the road and the right wheel left the roadway. She responded by overcorrecting to the left. The overcorrection led to the vehicle rolling over, and Plaintiff was thrown from the vehicle and injured.

PROCEDURE: Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Ford and Hale in Hampton County. Plaintiff did not seriously pursue the case against Hale. The case against Ford was based on two product liability claims (a defective seatbelt sleeve claim and a "handling and stablility" design defect claim relating to the rollover). Both claims were pursued in negligences and strict liability. The jury awarded the plaintiff $16 million in actual damages and $15 million in punitive damages. Ford appealed the verdict pursuant to Rule 204(b) of the South Carolina Appellate Court Rules.

ISSUES: Ford raised issues on appeal relating to (i) the design defect claim (including whether negligence could survive if the trial court granted a directed verdict on strict liability, as well as the proper test for determining if a product is defective and unreasonably dangerous in a design defect claim), (ii) the admission of post-distribution evidence, evidence of other similar incidents, and use of certain evidence during closing arguments, as well as the format of the verdict form, and (iii) the excessiveness of actual and punitive damages. The Court also addressed the issue of the alignment of the parties.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for a new trial.

RULES AND OPINION: Set forth below is a summary of the Court's opinion, providing headings concerning the subject matter and primary holdings in bold-faced type.

Design Defect Claims

First, the Court held that the trial court erred in directing a verdict on Plaintiff's strict liability seatbelt claim, but not on the same claim brought in negligence. At trial, Plaintiff claimed that Ford was negligent in failing to adequately test the seatbelt sleeve, but did not challenge the seatbelt sleeve design. Plaintiff had also brought a companion strict liability claim. The trial court directed a verdict on the strict liablity claim, but not on the negligence claim. Because the two claims have common elements (namely, the requirement that the product be in a defective and unreasonably dangerous condition), Ford argued that the negligence claim should have also been dismissed. The Court agreed: "When an element common to multiple claims is not established, all related claims must fail." Whether or not the manufacturer was at fault -- the additional element required for a products liability claim brought pursuant to a negligence theory -- is not even reached if a plaintiff cannot prove the predicate element of defective and unreasonably dangerous condition of the product. The Court distinguished the Court of Appeals decision in Bragg v. Hi-Ranger on this issue and emphasized that the critical inquiry as to whether one of the claims survives (where the other is dismissed) is the grounds for the dismissal. Significantly, the Court also agreed with Ford's argument that there is no separate "failure to test" claim apart from the duty to design and manufacture a product that is not defective and unreasonably dangerous. If the product is not defective and unreasonably dangerous, then failure to test cannot be a proximate cause of an injury.

With regard to the "handling and stability" design defect claim, the Court did not find error in the trial court's submission of these design defect claims to the jury. In reaching this determination, the Court reviewed certain testimony by Plaintiff's expert Dr. Melvin Richardson, former Ford Vice President Thomas Feaheny, and certain internal Ford documents relied upon by Dr. Richardson. In short, the Court discussed the evolution of the Bronco II's suspension, including competing views by Ford engineers and Ford executives about the different suspension options, including the "MacPherson" suspension and the "Twin I-Beam" suspension. The testimony and evidence related to the stability of the vehicles while using alternative suspensions, how using the different suspension options would affect rollout of new models, how they would impact other features of the vehicle, and the procedures and motivations behind selecting certain suspension options. Dr. Richardson testified that from all of the evidence, the Bronco II was "dangerously unstable" when it was designed and built, and that no improvements were made to correct this defect. After reviewing the evidence that was presented, the Court agreed with the trial judge's determination that Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence of a design defect known to Ford at or prior to the date of manufacture to withstand a directed verdict motion.

Next, the Court disagreed with Ford's contention that Plaintiff failed to provide evidence of a reasonable alternative design pursuant to the risk-utility test, but agreed that South Carolina law requires a risk-utility test in design defect cases (to the exclusion of the consumer expectations test.) The Court reviewed the prior opinions summarizing the two tests in Claytor v. General Motors Corp., 277 S.C. 259, 262, 286 S.E.2d 129, 131 (1982) and Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, 319 S.C. 531, 543, 462 S.E.2d 321, 328 (Ct. App. 1995). [The two tests are summarized here, as stated in Bragg]. After reviewing the prior case law, the Court again reviewed the competing suspension options (summarized above) and believed that Plaintiff's focus on the Macpherson suspension was evidence of feasible alternative design. The Court stated that whether this alternative satisfied the risk-utility test was a jury question, but the evidence itself was sufficent to survive a directed verdict motion. The Court then held that "the exclusive test in a products liability design case is the risk-utility test with its requirement of showing a feasible alternative design." While the consumer expectations test fits well in manufacturing defect cases, the Court agreed with Ford that it is ill-suited in design defect cases. The Court noted that in 1974, South Carolina's Legislature adopted the Restatement (Second) of Torts section 402(A) (1965) and identified its comments as legislative intent in S.C. Code section 15-73-10 through 15-73-30. However, since this adoption, the Court noted that the American Law Institute has published the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability (1998), and that this edition moved away from the consumer expectations test for design defects, and toward the risk-utility test. The Court stated that it did not believe that the Legislature intended to foreclose court consideration of developments in products liability law. The Court noted that its approval of the risk-utility test in the Claytor case had not prompted a legislative response, and the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions now employ some form of the risk-utility test.

We believe that in design defect cases the risk-utility test provides the best means for analyzing whether a product is designed defectively. Unlike the consumer expectations test, the focus of a risk-utility test centers upon the alleged defectively designed product. The risk-utility test provides objective factors for a trier of fact to analyze when presented with a challenge to a manufacturer's design. Conversely, we find the consumer expectations test and its focus on the consumer ill suited to determine whether a product's design is unreasonably dangerous.
The court reviewed prior cases in which there was an emphasis on showing a feasible alternative design in the context of a risk-utility analysis, including Claytor, Bragg, Kennedy v. Custom Ice Equip. Co., 271 S.C. 171, 176, 246 S.E.2d176, 178 (1978), Sunvillas Homeowners Ass'n v. Square D Co., 301 S.C. 330, 334, 391 S.E.2d 868, 870 (Ct. App. 1990), and Gasque v. Heublein , Inc., 281 S.C. 278, 283, 315 S.E.2d 556, 559 (Ct. App. 1984). [A review of feasible alternative design law preceding Branham v. Ford Motor Co. can be found here]. The Court noted as follows:
The very nature of feasible alternative design evidence entails the manufacturer's decision to employ one design over another. This weighing of costs and benefits attendant to that decision is the essence of the risk-utility test.
The Court then cited to the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability section 2(b) (1998) and University of South Carolina Professor David Owen's article Toward a Proper Test for Design Defectiveness: "Micro-Balancing" Costs and Benefits, 75 Tex. L. Rev. 1661, 1687 (1997) to support the risk-utility test and reasonable alternative design (as a requirement of same). The Court stated that the core of the risk-utility balancing test is whether a product was made safe enough, but cautioned that it also adhered to its longstanding principle that just because a product can be made safer does not mean that the product is defective and unreasonably dangerous.

Evidentiary Issues Justifying
Reversal and Remand for New Trial

Notwithstanding the sufficiency of the evidence to withstand a directed verdict on the handling and stability design defect claim, the Court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial, citing three reasons.

First, Ford was prejudiced by Plaintiff's unrelenting pursuit of post-distribution evidence on the issue of liability. The Court reviewed South Carolina's requirement that a plaintiff must show the product was in a defective condition "'at the time that it left the hands of the particular seller.'" (quoting Claytor v. Gen. Motors Corp., 277 S.C. 259, 264, 286 S.E.2d 129, 131-32 (1982). Post-distribution evidence is "evidence of facts neither known nor available at the time of distribution." The Court again cited to Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability section 2, cmt. a (1998) to support that assessing liability in a products liability claim requires evaluation of a manufacturer's decision based on what was known or "reasonably attainable" at the time of manufacture.
The use of post-distribution evidence to evaluate a product's design through the lens of hindsight is improper.
The Court reviewed numerous examples of post-distribution evidence emphasized by Plaintiff at trial and through Dr. Richardson to support a higher rollover tendency of the Bronco II t(evidence hat came to light after manufacture). The Court found this evidence to be prejudicial and stated that "the law should encourage manufacturers to continue to improve their products in terms of utility and safety free from prior design decisions judged through the lens of hindsight."

Second, the trial court agreed that admission of certain post-distribution "other incident" evidence was prejudicial to Ford, but also ruled against Ford on certain pre-manufacture "other incident" evidence. The Court surveyed South Carolina's law that similar accidents are admissible if the tend to prove or disprove some fact in dispute. However, the Court noted that it need not even address whether certain post-distribution evidence admitted into evidence was "substantially similar." "The post-manufacture evidence of purported similar incidents was error, even if the 'substantially similar' threshold was met." The Court reiterated that post-manufacture evidence of similar incidents is not admissible to provide liability. The Court then reviewed the pre-manufacture rollover data introduced by Plaintiff with regard to the Bronco II and other vehicles in the same class. The Court disagreed with Ford's contention that the pre-manufacture comparative evidence of rollover accidents violated the "substantially similar" test articulated in Whaley v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 362 S.C. 456, 483, 609 S.E.2d 286, 300 (2005) and revisited in Watson v. Ford Motor Co., Op. No. 26786 (S.C. Sup. Ct. filed Mar. 15, 2010) (Shearouse Adv. Sh. No. 10 at 37). Even though there was no showing that the cause of the other accidents was similar to the Plaintiff's rollover accident, the Court found that the rate of rollover of the Bronco II compared to other vehicles was relevant to whether the Bronco II had an unreasonably dangerous tendency to rollover. The Court was not persuaded by Ford's arguments that many accidents may be attributable to inexperienced or impaired drivers, or that Hale's inattention was the cause of the accident.

Third, Plaintiff's counsel's closing argument was designed to inflame and prejudice the jury. The Court provided six different examples of excerpts from the closing argument that served as examples of its inflammatory and prejudicial content. The Court also noted that much of the argument was based on inadmissible evidence.

Next, in light of the remand for a new trial, (and without addressing whether it was prejudicial to Ford) the Court held that the trial court's requirement that jthe ury apportion liability between Ford and Hale on the verdict form was error. Because the accident occurred in 2001, Ford and Hale were joint tortfeasors, meaning that they were jointly and severably responsible for all damages. Therefore, there could be no apportionment of fault. The Court noted that that it had reaffirmed the applicability of joint and several liability among joint tortfeasors since adopting the doctrine of comparative negligence. The Court further rejected the trial court's rationale that the apportionment was necessary to ensure that any punitive damages award was based on negligence, and not strict liability (for which punitive damages are not recoverable, discussed here).

Excessiveness of Damages Issues Raised by Ford

Next, the Court addressed the jury's award of $16 million in actual damages and $15 million in punitive damages. In light of the remand for a new trial, the Court found it unnecessary to resolve Ford's claim that the actual damages award was grossly excessive.

With regard to punitive damages, the Court found that the issue was properly submitted to the jury, but agreed that the award could not withstand constitutional scrutiny. Because of the new trial, the Court addressed Plaintiff's reliance on "harm to others" in the closing argument. A central theme of the closing argument was that the jury should punish Ford for harming all Bronco II rollover victims. The trial court charged the jury not to punish Ford for other "conduct." The Court found that this charge violated the "harm to others" prohibition because by focusing on conduct, as opposed to harm to Plaintiff, the charge invited the jury to punish Ford for all Bronco rollover deaths and injuries, which is forbidden by Durham v. Vinson, 360 S.C. 639, 653, 602 S.E.2d 760, 767 (2004) and Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 549 U.S. 346, 350, 353 (2007).

With regard to financial data, the Court stated that South Carolina upholds that the wealth of a defendant is a relevant factor in assessing punitive damages. The Court reviewed Plaintiff counsel's focus on extrapolating financial data in such a manner so as to break it down in terms of daily income, hourly income, etc. Although prior opinions have not found abuse of discretion in the admission of per day earnings of a defendant, the Court believed that evidence of "net worth" appears to be the safest harbor and directed that the retrial be confined to such evidence. The Court also found that the Plaintiff's introduction Ford's senior management compensation (including salaries, bonuses, stock options, etc.) to be error and highly prejudicial.

Alignment of Parties

Finally, the Court addressed Ford's claim that the trial court should have realigned Hale as a plaintiff. Although the Court did not find that this issue was preserved for review, it addressed it "in the hope that our speaking to the matter will aid the bench and the bar." The Court reviewed the evidence at trial to support that Hale sat on the plaintiff's side during the trial and only cross examined one witness for Plaintiff (and the sole question to Plaintiff's economic expert was, "How many millions are in a billion?"). The Court concluded that the only bona fide defendant in the case was Ford. The Court reviewed Rule 21 of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure and its federal counterpart, as well as federal and state authority interpreting them. From this review, the Court adopted the rule that trial court's have the authority to realign parties "at any state of the action." It is within the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be disturbged on appeal absent a showing of an abuse of discretion and resulting prejudice.

This post is subject to the DISCLAIMER AND TERMS OF USE of this website.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Case Brief: Watson v. Ford Motor Co.

By Brian A. Comer

UPDATE: The South Carolina Supreme Court has re-filed this opinion as of September 13, 2010, and the below brief was based on the first opinion, and not the re-filed one. Please see this post for more details and links to the current opinion. The new opinion upholds the reversal and deals with the same issues (expert testimony and admission of other incidents), but it also includes additional language concerning Ford's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

-------------------------

Yesterday, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed an $18 million jury verdict against Ford Motor Co. on grounds that the trial court erred in admitting certain expert testimony, as well as in admitting evidence of other incidents. The case can be found here . It provides some great guidance on South Carolina's law concerning the admissibility of expert testimony and the responsibility of the trial court to act as a "gatekeeper" for same. It also sets forth certain factors that can be applied in the products liability context to determine whether evidence of other incidents should be admitted.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: In December of 1999, Plaintiff Sonya Watson ("Watson") was driving a 1995 Ford Explorer with three other passengers, including Patricia Carter ("Carter"). After entering the interstate, Watson lost control of the vehicle, and it rolled for times. Watson and Carter were ejected from the vehicle. Watson was rendered a quadriplegic, and Carter died.

PROCEDURE: Plaintiffs filed a products liability lawsuit against Ford, D&D Motors, Inc. and TRW Vehicle Safety Systems, Inc., alleging that the cruise control system and seatbelts were defective and seeking actual and punitive damages. Plaintiffs' theory was that the Ford Explorer's cruise control system was defective because it allowed electromagnetic interference ("EMI") to affect it. Plaintiffs presented an electrical engineer, Dr. Antony Anderson, to support their theory. He testified that EMI can interfere with the speed component of a cruise control system and cause a vehicle to suddenly accelerate. He also testified that Ford could have used "twisted pair wiring" to prevent EMI so that the accident would not have occurred. Plaintiffs also presented the testimony of Bill Williams as an expert on "cruise control diagnosis," as well as evidence from four witnesses who testified about other incidents in which their Ford Explorers suddenly accelerated. Ford presented its own cruise control expert, Karl Passeger, who testified that EMI signals have no effect on cruise control. Ford also presented evidence that the floor mats could have caused the acceleration, as they had on prior occasions. The jury awarded compensatory damages of $15 million to Watson and $3 million to Carter's Estate.

ISSUES: The South Carolina Supreme Court addressed three issues presented by Ford on appeal:

  1. Did the trial court err in qualifying Plaintiffs' expert Bill Williams as an expert in cruise control systems?
  2. Did the trial court err in allowing Dr. Anderson's expert testimony regarding EMI and alternative feasible design?
  3. Did the trial court err in allowing evidence of other incidents of sudden acceleration in Explorers?

DISPOSITION: Reversed.

RULES AND OPINION: The Court reviewed South Carolina's law of admission of expert testimony, which is governed by South Carolina Rule of Evidence 702. The trial court must make three key preliminary findings before presenting the testimony to the jury:

First, the trial judge must find that the subject matter is beyond the ordinary knowledge of the jury, thus requiring an expert to explain the matter to the jury. Next, while the expert need not be a specialist in the particular branch of the field, the trial court must find that the proffered expert has indeed acquired the requisite knowledge and skill to qualify as an expert in the particular subject matter. Finally, the trial court must evaluate the substance of the testimony and determine whether it is reliable.

(Citations omitted). The Court analyzed the three appellate issues in this context.

Issue Number 1: The Court found that the trial court erred in qualifying Mr. Williams as an expert on cruise control diagnosis. A trial court's inquiry into the qualifications of an expert should be "broad in scope." Although Williams testified that he had worked in the automotive industry as a trainer, consultant, software developer, and a writer, his qualifications were lacking in other respects.

  • He had no professional experience working on cruise control systems prior to the litigation.
  • He had not conducted any comparison of the Explorer's cruise control system to any other system.
  • He had never taught or published papers on cruise control systems.
  • "Williams had no knowledge, skill, experience, training or education specifically related to cruise control systems." Instead, he "taught [him]self" about the Explorer's system prior to trial.

The Court found that the trial court failed to properly evaluate Williams' qualifications specific to cruise control systems and erred in qualifying him as a cruise control expert. However, Williams' testimony was primarily descriptive of the cruise control system, its scope was controlled by the trial court, and he was subject to extensive cross examination to impeach his credibility. Therefore, the error did not prejudice Ford.

Issue Number 2: The Court found that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting Dr. Anderson's testimony. First, the Court rejected the notion that technical evidence is not subject to the same reliability requirements as scientific evidence. "The trial court must examine the substance of the testimony to determine if it is reliable, regardless of whether the expert evidence is scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge."

Next, the Court examined Dr. Anderson's qualifications and the reliability of his testimony (applying the reliability factors articulated in State v. Council, 335 S.C. 1, 19, 515 S.E.2d 515, 517 (1999)). The Court found that with regard to his opinions concerning alternative feasible design, Dr. Anderson failed to meet Rule 702's rule that the witness be qualified in the particular area of expertise. Dr. Anderson's experience was in working with large generators with different electrical wiring systems and voltage levels. He had no experience in the automotive industry, never studied a cruise control system, and never designed any component of such a system. Plaintiffs also failed to illustrate that his testimony that twisted pair wiring would have cured the EMI defect was reliable, or how it could be incorporated into a cruise control system. There was also a lack of evidence to support the economic feasibility of this alternative.

The Court also found that Dr. Anderson's testimony about EMI and its effect on the cruise control system was unreliable. He admitted that his theory had not been peer-reviewed, he had never published papers on it, and he had never tested it. He also could not pinpoint where the EMI that caused the malfunction originated, or the system in the Explorer that it affected. His only document to support his theory was a 1975 National Highway Safety Administration report, which had been superseded in 1989. The Court focused on the fact that Dr. Anderson had never published his theory, never tested it, and that his theory had been rejected in the scientific community. Admission of Dr. Anderson's testimony was prejudicial error because it was the only evidence presented by Plaintiffs to support their theory of defect.

Issue Number 3: The Court found that the trial court's admission of evidence of other incidents of sudden acceleration was prejudicial error. Evidence of similar incidents is admissible where there is some special relation between the accidents tending to prove or disprove some fact in dispute. (Citing Whaley v. CSX Transp., Inc., 362 S.C. 456, 483, 609 S.E.2d 286, 300 (2005)). The Court also cited to a District of North Carolina case, Buckman v. Bombardier Corp., 893 F. Supp. 547, 552 (E.D. N.C. 1995), for factors to consider regarding admissibility of similar incidents to prove defect, including (1) similarity of the products, (2) similarity of defects, (3) causation related to defect in the other incidents, and (4) exclusion of other reasonably secondary explanations for the cause of the other incidents. Plaintiffs failed to show that the incidents were substantially similar and failed to establish a special relation between the other incidents and Plaintiffs' accident. The products were not similar because the other incidents involved Explorers made in different years and of a different model type. Plaintiffs failed to show a similarity of causation between the incidents, and they failed to excluse reasonable explanations for the cause in the other incidents. Therefore, this evidence was irrelevant. The admission of this evidence was highly prejudicial, especially in light of the fact that Plaintiffs' counsel highlighted it in his closing argument and "thereby possibly induced the jury to speculate as to other causes of the accident not supported by any evidence."

CONCURRING OPINION: Justice Pleicones wrote the concurring opinion for Justices Waller, Beatty, Kittredge, and Pleicones. The concurring opinion focuses primarily on the framework for analyzing the admissibility of expert testimony. It disagrees with the first inquiry in the framework articulated in the majority opinion, "Is the subject matter of the testimony beyond the knowledge of a layperson, thus requiring and expert to explain it?" Instead, the concurring opinion cites to the framework cited in State v. Council, 335 S.C. 1, 515 S.E.2d 508 (1999), which is (1) is the underlying science reliable?; (2) is the expert qualified?; and (3) would the evidence assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue? The concurring opinion also disagreed that the model and manufacture year of the Explorers in the other incidents were meaningful distinctions for purposes of excluding this evidence.

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