Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Case Brief: Holst v. KCI Konecranes Int'l Corp., 390 S.C. 29, 699 S.E.2d 715 (Ct. App. 2010)

It has been awhile since I posted a Case Brief, so I thought I would provide one for Holst v. KCI Konecranes Int'l Corp, 390 S.C. 29, 699 S.E.2d 715 (Ct. App. 2010).  I originally blogged about this case when it came out, and its opinion has now been published.  This is a crane accident case involving a "KCI rubber-tired gantry crane" at a terminal of the South Carolina State Ports Authority in Charleston, South Carolina.  I was not familiar with a "gantry crane" and how it differed from a regular crane, so I did the trusty google image search to see what came up.  I am glad that I did.  As you can see from one of the the pictures (below), it is different than your typical idea of a "crane."  (This picture is only intended to give you an idea of a "rubber-tired gantry crane" generally.  I have no idea if it is the make or model of the crane at issue).

The case has some good discussion about the necessity of alternative design in a design defect case.  There is also discussion of what the court looks at in terms of other manufacturers and industry standards when evaluating design, warnings, etc. 

FACTUAL BACKGROUND: Decedent was a checker at a terminal at the port in Charleston, South Carolina.  390 S.C. at 33, 699 S.E.2d at 718.  He was responsible for identifying containers needed for transport between the container yard and ships.  Id.  He would instruct crane operators to move and load the containers in the proper sequence.  Id. at 33-34, 699 S.E.2d at 718.  Decedent was killed when a crane operator lowered containers in an area where he was standing, crushing him.  Id. at 34, 699 S.E.2d at 718.

PROCEDURE: Plaintiff (decedent’s wife) filed suit alleging negligence, breach of warranty, and strict liability for defective design against the crane manufacturer.  390 S.C. at 34, 699 S.E.2d at 718.  The crane manufacturer moved for summary judgment, which was granted by the lower court.  Id. at 34-35, 699 S.E.2d at 718.  Plaintiff appealed.  Id.

ISSUE: Whether the circuit (trial) court erred in granting KCI's motion for summary judgment.

DISPOSITION: The South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment.  390 S.C. at 44, 699 S.E.2d at 723.

OPINION: Plaintiff’s first argument was that the lower court improperly weighed conflicting testimony concerning product defect, compliance with industry standards, and comparisons of the crane to others on the market.  390 S.C. at 35-36, 699 S.E.2d at 719.  Plaintiff cited to the testimony of two experts (Dr. George Pearsall and Richard Leonard) to support that the crane operator did not have obstruction-free visibility and that the crane should have been equipped with a camera.  Id. at 36, 699 S.E.2d at 719.  Even so, both experts for plaintiff conceded that a camera would not eliminate a blind spot, they did not know of other manufacturers who utilized a camera, and the crane met industry standards/regulations.  IdMr. Leonard testified that he had never seen a comparable model crane with greater visibility than the one at issue.  IdBecause of a lack of evidence of alternative design or that a risk-utility test was conducted with regard to the crane by plaintiff’s experts, the court held that plaintiff could not establish the crane was defective and unreasonably dangerous as a matter of law.  Id. at 37, 699 S.E.2d at 719-20. 

With regard to compliance with industry standards, the court reviewed American Society of Mechanical Engineers standard B30.2-1.5.1(b) and International Organization for Standardization section 8566-1.  Id. at 37-38, 699 S.E.2d at 720.  The court affirmed that the manufacturer complied with these standards from the evidence and that the operator’s access to a telephone, intercom with a loudspeaker, and two-way radio also aided in his “view” of the load block so as to bring the crane into compliance with applicable standards.  Id Finally, the court affirmed that plaintiff’s experts failed to provide evidence that another crane was similar enough to the one at issue so as to provide proof that other cranes on the market had better visibility.  Id. at 38-39, 699 S.E.2d at 720. 
Plaintiffs also argued that the lower court applied an improper legal standard by basing its grant of summary judgment on the crane’s conformity with industry custom.  Id. at 39, 699 S.E.2d at 721.  The appellate court did not agree and noted that conformity with industry standards was only one factor considered by the trial court.  Id.

Plaintiff also argued that the lower court erred in applying inapplicable legal standards from certain Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and South Carolina state court cases (i.e., Sexton By & Through Sexton v. Bell Helmets, Inc., 926 F.2d 331 (4th Cir. 1991), Marchant v. Mitchell Distributing Co., 270 S.C. 29, 240 S.E.2d 511 (1977), and Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., 319 S.C. 531 462 S.E.2d 321 (Ct. App. 1995)). Id. at 40-42, 699 S.E.2d at 721-22.  The court distinguished each cited case on legal or factual grounds and ruled that the lower court did not err in relying on them.  Id.

Finally, the court addressed summary judgment on each of plaintiff’s claims (strict liability, negligence – defective design, and negligence – failure to warn).  Id. at 42-44, 699 S.E.2d at 722-23.  The court cited to its prior discussion as also applying to support dismissal of the strict liability claim.  Id. at 42, 699 S.E.2d at 722.  On the negligent design claim, the court focused on the superiority of the design of the crane in comparison to others, its compliance with applicable standards, and the fact that the blind spot could not be eliminated to support its holding that there was no material issue of fact.  Id. at 42-43, 699 S.E.2d at 722-23.  The court also found that the crane included proper warnings both in the Operator’s Manual and on the crane itself so as to support summary judgment on plaintiff’s negligent failure to warn claim.  Id. at 43-44, 699 S.E.2d at 723.  Affirmed.

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