United States District Court, D. South Carolina
OPINION AND ORDER
BRUCE HOWE HENDRICKS, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on the defendants' motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 23.) The defendants contend that the plaintiffs have failed to establish the essential elements of their causes of action against the defendants.
This case concerns a tree trimming accident that occurred on June 18, 2010, while Plaintiff Jackie Alford was removing dead and dying trees from a private property located in Westminister, South Carolina. Just five months prior to the accident, the plaintiff started a residential tree cutting business called Dr. Daniels Tree Service. (Pl. Dep. at 29-30.) The plaintiff and his wife, Plaintiff Phyllis Alford, ran the business. (Pl. Dep. at 55-56.)
The plaintiff purchased a rope from Lowe's, in Seneca, South Carolina, on April 27, 2010, to use as his life safety or "lifeline" for tree climbing. (Pl. Dep. at 59.) He purchased this rope to replace a previous and identical one. Id. The plaintiff bought all of the ropes he used in his business - including lanyards, lifeline ropes, and ropes used to lower limbs - from Lowe's. Id. at 61. The plaintiff testified that he would normally use a rope as his "lifeline" rope for a couple of jobs, and when he got a new rope he would use the old lifeline rope for less serious applications, like lowering limbs. Id. at 58.
According to the defendants, the rope at issue was a recreational rope manufactured by Defendant Lehigh and marketed and sold by Defendant Lowe's. The rope was a solid braid blend of nylon, polyester, and polypropylene. (Pl. Resp. Ex. A.) The rope was 7/16", less than half an inch in diameter. Id. The rope was rated with a 300-pound safe working load. It cost $19.97. Id. The label affixed to the subject rope contained a warning, discussed in more detail infra, that included, among other things, a recommendation that the rope not be used when personal safety is endangered. Id.
The morning of the accident in question, the plaintiff prepared to climb a tall Oak tree to cut limbs from the top of the tree before cutting it down. (Pl. Dep. at 92.) The plaintiff attached a lanyard around the trunk of the tree and "shimmied up the tree." Id. at 93. He "took off the small, little branches on [his] way up" with his hands. (Pl. Dep. at 93.) As indicated, when he reached the top of the tree, he tied the Lehigh rope around a tree branch to use as his "lifeline." Id. He carried a chain saw attached to his climbing saddle to cut down limbs as he was coming down. Id. When he reached the top of the tree, he detached all other ropes, which were securing him to the tree, except for the Lehigh rope. Almost immediately thereafter, Alford stepped out on a tree branch and slipped or fell, the Lehigh rope broke, and he fell fifty (50) to sixty (60) feet to the ground.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The court shall grant summary judgment "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating that summary judgment is appropriate; if the movant carries its burden, then the burden shifts to the non-movant to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). If a movant asserts that a fact cannot be disputed, it must support that assertion either by "citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials;" or "showing... that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).
Accordingly, to prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the movant must demonstrate that: (1) there is no genuine issue as to any material fact; and (2) that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. As to the first of these determinations, a fact is deemed "material" if proof of its existence or non-existence would affect disposition of the case under applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). An issue of material fact is "genuine" if the evidence offered is such that a reasonable jury might return a verdict for the non-movant. Id. at 257. In determining whether a genuine issue has been raised, the court must construe all inferences and ambiguities against the movant and in favor of the non-moving party. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962).
Under this standard, the existence of a mere scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position is insufficient to withstand the summary judgment motion. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. Likewise, conclusory allegations or denials, without more, are insufficient to preclude the granting of the summary judgment motion. Ross v. Communications Satellite Corp., 759 F.2d 355, 365 (4th Cir. 1985). "Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.
As is typical in products liability litigation, the plaintiffs have pled claims in negligence, strict liability, and warranty theories. Under South Carolina law, however, a plaintiff in a product liability action must prove three elements regardless of the legal theory on which he seeks recovery: (1) that he was injured by the product; (2) that the product, at the time of the accident, was in essentially the same condition as when it left the hands of the defendant; and (3) that the injury occurred because the product was in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user. See Claytor v. General Motors Corp., 286 S.E.2d 129, 131 (1982) (emphasis added); Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., 462 S.E.2d 321, 326 (Ct. App. 1995). The failure to provide evidence in support of any of these elements precludes recovery. As such, in order to survive summary judgment under any of plaintiffs' causes of action - strict liability, negligence, or breach of warranty - the plaintiffs must present evidence that the plaintiff's injuries were proximately caused by a "defective condition" that made the Lehigh rope "unreasonably dangerous."
Critically, however, "a product bearing a warning that the product is safe for use if the user follows the warning is neither defective nor unreasonably dangerous; therefore, the seller is not liable for any injuries caused by the use of the product if the user ignores the warning." Anderson v. Green Bull, Inc., 471 S.E.2d 708 (S.C. Ct. App. 1996); see also Claytor v. General Motors Corp., 286 S.E.2d 129, 132 (1982) (stating that, if products are "properly prepared, manufactured, packaged and accompanied with adequate warnings and instructions, they cannot be said to be defective").
It is undisputed that the label for the rope at issue contained a warning. (Pl. Resp. Ex. 1.) ...