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Priester v. Futuramic Tool & Engineering Co.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

March 27, 2017

LISA J. PRIESTER, individually, and as Personal Representative of the Estate of David A. Priester, Jr., Plaintiff,
v.
FUTURAMIC TOOL & ENGINEERING COMPANY; CAPITAL WELDING, INC.; MCMASTER-CARR SUPPLY COMPANY; INTEC AUTOMATED CONTROLS, INC.; and SAR AUTOMATION, L.P., Defendants.

          ORDER

          DAVID C. NORTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the court on (1) defendants Futuramic Tool & Engineering Company's (“Futuramic”) motion for partial summary judgment as to plaintiff Lisa Priester's (“Priester”) strict liability claims, (2) defendant SAR Automation, L.P.'s (“SAR”) motion for partial summary judgment as to Priester's strict liability claims, and (3) defendant Capital Welding Inc.'s (“Capital Welding”) motion for summary judgment as to all of Priester's claims. The court (1) grants in part and denies in part Futuramic's motion for partial summary judgment as to Priester's strict liability claims; (2) grants in part and denies in part SAR's motion for partial summary judgment as to Priester's strict liability claims; (3) grants in part and denies in part Capital Welding's motion for complete summary judgment as to all of Priester's claims.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This litigation arises out of a fatal accident at the Boeing manufacturing facility in North Charleston, South Carolina. ECF No. 75 at 1. On March 18, 2013, the decedent, David Priester (“Mr. Priester”)[1] was working on an elevated work platform (“Cell 90”) when he fell through an opening eighteen feet above the concrete floor. Id. Cell 90 was designed with eighteen movable sliders which extend at varying lengths to conform to the curving nature of the body of the aircraft barrel. Id. at 4-5. The design of Cell 90 called for the sliders to be no more than three inches from the aircraft barrel. Id. At the time of the incident, Mr. Priester and four other Boeing employees were working on Cell 90, and following the last shift break attempted to extend the sliders to continue working on the aircraft. However, Slider #2 did not extend the entire length to the body of the aircraft, leaving a gap between the end of Slider #2 and the body of the aircraft. ECF No. 88 at 3. Mr. Priester and his teammates continued to work on the platform, and after working for approximately one hour on Cell 90, Mr. Priester fell through the gap between Slider #2 and the aircraft barrel. ECF No. 88 at 4. Mr. Priester later died as a result of the injuries sustained from the fall. ECF No. 75 at 1. Priester is the widow of Mr. Priester and the personal representative of his estate. Id.

         Priester filed the present suit on March 24, 2014 against Futuramic, Capital Welding, McMaster-Carr Supply Company, and Intec Automated Controls, Inc. She asserts strict liability claims against Futuramic, Capital, and McMaster-Carr, and causes of action for negligence, loss of consortium, and punitive damages against all defendants.[2] ECF No. 88 at 2. On September 17, 2014, Priester amended her complaint to add SAR as a defendant. ECF No. 88 at 2.

         Capital Welding filed a motion for summary judgment on all of Priester's claims on July 1, 2016, ECF No. 75, and Priester responded on August 18, 2016, ECF No. 82, to which Capital Welding replied on September 6, 2016, ECF No. 86. Futuramic filed a motion for partial summary judgment on Priester's strict liability claims on July 1, 2016, ECF No. 76, and Priester responded on August 18, 2016, ECF No. 82, to which Futuramic replied on September 6, 2016, ECF No. 86. SAR filed a motion for partial summary judgment on September 13, 2016, ECF No. 88, and Priester responded on October 21, 2016, ECF No. 99, to which SAR replied on November 4, 2016, ECF No. 102. The court held hearings on the motions, which are now ripe for the court's review.

         II. STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires that the district court enter judgment against a party who, ‘after adequate time for discovery . . . fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.'” Stone v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 105 F.3d 188, 190 (4th Cir. 1997) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). Any reasonable inferences are to be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. See Webster v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 685 F.3d 411, 421 (4th Cir. 2012). However, to defeat summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify an error of law or a genuine issue of disputed material fact. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986); see also Bouchat v. Balt. Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003).

         Although the court must draw all justifiable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, the nonmoving party must rely on more than conclusory allegations, mere speculation, the building of one inference upon another, or the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252; Stone, 105 F.3d at 191. Rather, “a party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment . . . must ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Bouchat, 346 F.3d at 522 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e) (2002) (amended 2010)). If the adverse party fails to provide evidence establishing that the factfinder could reasonably decide in his favor, then summary judgment shall be entered “regardless of ‘[a]ny proof or evidentiary requirements imposed by the substantive law.'” Id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. SAR's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment as to Priester's Strict Liability Claims

         SAR brings a motion for partial summary judgment as to Priester's strict liability claims, arguing that Priester has not presented sufficient evidence to support a theory based on strict liability for manufacturing defect, design defect, or failure to warn. ECF No. 88 at 7. The court grants SAR's motion for summary judgment as it relates to strict liability for failure to warn and the design defect claim, but denies the motion as it relates to the manufacturing defect claim.[3]

         In South Carolina, “[t]here are three defects a plaintiff in a products liability lawsuit can allege: 1) a manufacturing defect, 2) a warning defect, and 3) a design defect.” Watson v. Ford Motor Co., 699 S.E.2d 169, 174 (S.C. 2010). “When a manufacturing defect claim is made, a plaintiff alleges that a particular product was defectively manufactured.” Id. “When a warning defect claim is made, a plaintiff alleges that he was not adequately warned of dangers inherent to a product.” Id. Finally, “[w]hen a design defect claim is made, a plaintiff alleges that the product at issue was defectively designed, thus causing an entire line of products to be unreasonably dangerous.” Id. A plaintiff must establish three elements for a products liability case based on the theory of strict liability: (1) he was injured by the product; (2) the injury occurred because the product was in a defective condition, unreasonably dangerous to the user; and (3) the product, at the time of the accident, was in essentially the same condition as when it left the hands of the defendant. Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., 462 S.E.2d 321 (S.C. Ct. App. 1995). While under any products liability theory the plaintiff must show that a product defect was a proximate cause of his injuries, “proximate cause does not mean the sole cause” and a “defendant's conduct can be a proximate cause if it was at least one of the direct, concurring causes of the injury.” Small v. Pioneer Mach., Inc., 494 S.E.2d 835, 842 (S.C. Ct. App. 1998). As SAR moves for summary judgment on the manufacturing defect, design defect, and failure to warn claims, the court analyzes each of these in turn.

         1. Manufacturing Defect

         SAR argues that there is no strict liability based on manufacturing defect because it had no part in the initial manufacturing of Cell 90, and that its addition of redundant brakes to Cell 90 and disabling laser sensors was performed “at the request of Boeing.” ECF No. 88 at 8. SAR argues that it was a communication loss between the logic software[4] and the electrical system, and not a mechanical issue associated with SAR's addition of redundant brakes and disabling of laser sensors, which prevented Slider #2 from extending fully, resulting in the gap that Mr. Priester fell through. ECF No. 88 at 10. Citing discrepancies between SAR's quote to Boeing and what it actually provided, Priester argues that SAR “failed to complete” its work on the manufacture of Cell 90. ECF No. 99 at 14. The court is persuaded by the argument that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether SAR's actions contributed to the defective condition of Cell 90 on the night of Mr. Priester's fall.

         The court recognizes there is some ambiguity in the distinction between what is required to establish a manufacturing defect claim as opposed to a design defect claim. The court in Fisher v. Pelstring, 817 F.Supp.2d 791, 818 (D.S.C. 2011), on reconsideration in part (Jan. 11, 2012), acknowledged this, stating that there is “not an abundance of case law in South Carolina about how a manufacturing defect differs from other defects.” However, the Fisher court noted that courts have identified a manufacturing defect as existing “when a product does not conform to the design standards and blueprints of the manufacturer and the flaw makes the product more dangerous and therefore unfit for its intended or foreseeable uses.” Id. (citing Gerber v. Hoffmann-La Roche Inc., 392 F.Supp.2d 907, 922 (S.D. Tex. 2005)). The Fisher court also cited Wheeler v. HO Sports, Inc., 232 F.3d 754, 757 (10th Cir. 2000), where the Tenth Circuit applied Oklahoma law to determine that “a product is defective in manufacture if it deviates in some material way from its design or performance standards . . . [which is] often established by showing that a product, as produced, failed to conform with the manufacturer's specifications.” Other courts within this circuit have also framed manufacturing defects as a defect that occurs when the final product does not conform to specifications. See e.g., Shreve v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 166 F.Supp.2d 378, 411 (D. Md. 2001) (Noting that “[c]ourts have not always been clear in distinguishing the proof needed to establish a design defect as opposed to a manufacturing defect . . . [but that] [t]o avoid defendants' motion for summary judgment [on the manufacturing defect claim], plaintiffs must offer evidence of some indication that the product at issue [] was not manufactured in accordance with the product's design specifications[.]”)

         Here, SAR's Price Quotation for the work it performed on Cell 90 stated that it would include “design work up to the interface terminal strip, ” the provision of “[g]eneral Logic for slider operation” and an “[a]larm horn with selectable tone, ” as well as “commissioning, [5] testing and training.” ECF No. 99, Ex. 11, SAR Quotation. According to Ebersole, SAR's commissioning of Cell 90 “resulted in the system not being completed to the design, and this was a cause” of Slider #2 not extending fully. Id., Ex. 4, Ebersole Dep. at 71:20-72:9. Ebersole further opines that SAR failed to review the controller logic to ensure that it was complete, and as a result, Cell 90's sliders were never completed. ECF No. 82, Ex. 1, Ebersole Report at 33. While Intec designed the communication verification logic, SAR also played a role in the installation of the logic-it is during the commissioning process that SAR was responsible for verifying that all requirements were met, including that the system that Intec designed to stop movement of all sliders was properly installed and functional. ECF No. 82, Ebersole Report at 26. By not completing the commissioning as designed, Ebersole states, SAR's inactions contributed to Cell 90 being put into use in a manner different from the original design of the platform. Id.

         The court finds that Priester has presented enough evidence to present a genuine issue of material fact that SAR's actions in incompletely commissioning Cell 90 contributed to Cell 90 being left in a state where it did not conform to its intended design. A reasonable jury could find that the failure of Cell 90 to sound an alarm when Slider #2 did not fully extend on the day of Mr. Priester's fall was as a result of SAR's incomplete commissioning of Cell 90's logic. For Priester to survive summary judgment, the jury need not find-as SAR urges-that SAR's incomplete commissioning was the only act that led to Mr. Priester's fall. In Small, the court held that a “defendant's conduct can be a proximate cause if it was at least one of the direct, concurring causes of the injury.” Small., 494 S.E.2d at 842 (emphasis added). There is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether SAR's role in the commissioning of Cell 90 failed to ensure that Cell 90 conformed to the ANSI A92.6 specifications and contained completed logic software. Accordingly, the court denies summary judgment on the manufacturing defect issue.

         2. Design Defect [6]

         Second, SAR argues that there is no strict liability based on design defect. A plaintiff proceeding under a design defect claim in South Carolina must “‘point to a design flaw in the product and show how his alternative design would have prevented the product from being unreasonably dangerous.'” Graves v. CAS Med. Sys., Inc., 735 S.E.2d 650, 658 (2012) (quoting Branham, 701 S.E.2d at 16), reh'g denied (Dec. 12, 2012). In presenting the alternative design, the plaintiff must include consideration of the “costs, safety and functionality of the alternative design.” Branham, 701 S.E.2d at 16. The jury then conducts a risk-utility test, “weighing the costs and benefits attendant to [the manufacturer's] decision” to use one design over another to determine if the danger associated with the use of the product outweighs the utility of the product. Id. In Branham, the Supreme Court of South Carolina warned that a jury question is not created “merely because a product can be made safer.” Id.

         SAR's role Cell 90 was to add a redundant air brake system in order to prevent the sliders from moving, and upon testing and commissioning of the platform SAR disabled laser sensors on the sliders, including Slider #2. ECF No. 88 at 3. SAR argues that it did not design the platform, and the work that it completed on the redundant air brake system and laser sensors was at the “specific request” of Boeing. ECF No. 88 at 10. Thus, SAR argues, it cannot be held liable for a design defect. The court agrees-while SAR's incomplete ...


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