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Donze v. General Motors, LLC

Supreme Court of South Carolina

May 17, 2017

Reid Harold Donze, Plaintiff,
v.
General Motors, LLC, Defendant. Appellate No. 2016-001437

          Heard January 11, 2017

         ON CERTIFICATION FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA Timothy M. Cain, United States District Judge

          Ronnie L. Crosby and Austin H. Crosby, both of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, of Hampton; Bert G. Utsey, III, of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, of Walterboro; S. Kirkpatrick Morgan, Jr. and Charles T. Slaughter, both of Walker & Morgan, LLC, of Lexington; and Kathleen C. Barnes, of Barnes Law Firm, LLC, of Hampton, all for Plaintiff.

          Joel H. Smith, Angela G. Strickland and Kevin J. Malloy, all of Bowman & Brooke, LLP, of Columbia; David G. Owen, of Law Center, of Columbia; John M. Thomas and Jill M. Wheaton, both of Dykema Gossett, of Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Michael P. Cooney, of Dykema Gossett, PLLC, of Detroit, Michigan, all for Defendants.

          Henry B. Smythe, Jr. and Dana W. Lang, both of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP, of Charleston, for Amicus Curiae, The Products Liability Advisory Council, Inc..

          Steve A. Matthews, of Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, PA, of Columbia; Phil Goldberg and Victor E. Schwartz, both of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, LLP, of Washington, DC, for Amicus Curiae, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Inc.

          HEARN JUSTICE

         This case concerns the applicability of comparative negligence to strict liability and breach of warranty claims in a crashworthiness case brought by Plaintiff Reid Harold Donze against Defendant General Motors ("GM"). District Judge Timothy M. Cain of the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina certified two questions to this Court addressing the defenses available to a manufacturer in crashworthiness cases brought under strict liability and breach of warranty theories. We hold the defense of comparative negligence does not apply in crashworthiness cases, and that South Carolina's public policy does not bar a plaintiff, allegedly intoxicated at the time of the accident, from bringing a crashworthiness claim against the vehicle manufacturer.

         FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In November of 2012, Donze and his friend, Allen Brazell, were driving around Greenville County in Donze's 1987 Chevrolet pickup truck. Although in dispute, there is evidence-including deposition testimony from Donze himself- indicating Brazell and Donze had been smoking synthetic marijuana earlier that morning. While Brazell was driving, [1] they came to an intersection controlled by a stop sign. Brazell failed to stop and pulled directly in front of a Ford F-350 truck towing a horse trailer. Unable to stop, the Ford struck Donze's truck on the driver's side, and the truck burst into flames. Brazell died as a result of the fire, and Donze suffered severe burns to eighty percent of his body.

         Donze filed this crashworthiness action against GM, alleging a defect in the truck's design-specifically, the placement of the gas tank outside of the truck's frame-caused the fire, and seeking damages only for his enhanced burn injuries.[2]GM filed a motion for summary judgment arguing Donze should be barred from recovery pursuant to South Carolina's public policy against driving while impaired. In the alternative, GM asserted comparative negligence should apply to limit Donze's recovery. Judge Cain denied GM's motion and certified two questions to this Court.

         CERTIFIED QUESTIONS

I. Does comparative negligence in causing an accident apply in a crashworthiness case when the plaintiff alleges claims of strict liability and breach of warranty and is seeking damages related only to the plaintiffs enhanced injuries?
II. Does South Carolina's public policy bar impaired drivers from recovering damages in a crashworthiness case when the plaintiff alleges claims of strict liability and breach of warranty?

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When a certified question raises a novel question of law, this Court is free to answer the question "based on its assessment of which answer and reasoning would best comport with the law and public policies of the state as well as the Court's sense of law, justice, and right." Drury Dev. Corp. v. Found. Ins. Co., 380 S.C. 97, 101, 668 S.E.2d 798, 800 (2008).

         LAW/ANALYSIS

         I. Comparative Negligence in Crashworthiness Cases

         Donze argues comparative negligence is inapplicable in crashworthiness cases where the plaintiff is only seeking recovery of the enhanced injuries caused by the alleged defect. In particular, Donze asserts that in crashworthiness cases, the damages from the initial collision and those caused by the alleged design defect are divisible. In other words, according to Donze, the enhanced injuries are a subsequent and separate event, the sole cause of which is the manufacturer's defective design. Therefore, any negligence on the part of the plaintiff in ...


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