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Smith v. Brewco Inc.

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

March 9, 2018

BREWCO, INC., Defendant.



         This matter comes before the court on defendant Brewco Inc.'s (“Brewco”) motion for summary judgment as to all of plaintiff Jeffrey Smith's (“Smith”) claims. For the reasons set forth below, the court grants in part and denies in part Brewco's summary judgment motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This litigation arises out of a workplace accident on a large, industrial multi-head trim saw (“trim saw”) that occurred on March 16, 2013 at a facility owned and operated by North American Container (“NAC”). Brewco is a company engaged in the business of manufacturing industrial saws for saw mills and wood fabrication facilities and manufactured the trim saw at issue in this case. The trim saw was used to cut lengths of lumber from which to construct pallets. Smith was an employee of NAC when this accident occurred, and worked in a position as a “catcher/stacker.” Brewco delivered the trim saw to NAC's facility in Rowesville, South Caroline in 2012. NAC installed the trim saw.

         On March 16, 2013, Smith was stacking wood that came out of the trim saw when he observed that a piece of wood had become jammed inside of the blades of the trim saw. He walked around to the input side of the trim saw and reached into the blade to pull out the piece of jammed wood. Once Smith removed the wood jammed in the blades, the trim saw restarted its rotation and Smith's fingers got caught in the trim saw blades, severely injuring two fingers on his right hand. As a result of this accident, Smith alleges that he has sustained severe and permanent injury, incurred medical expenses, lost income and will incur future medical costs.

         Smith filed this suit against Brewco alleging three products liability causes of action: negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty. On November 20, 2017, Brewco filed a motion for summary judgment, to which Smith responded on January 3, 2018. Brewco replied on January 17, 2018. The court held a hearing on March 6, 2018. The motion has been fully briefed and is 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).


         Smith brings this products liability case against Brewco on a number of theories, including negligence, strict liability, and warranty. The court first addresses Brewco's overarching arguments that Smith has failed to establish that the trim saw was the proximate cause of his injury and then moves on to discuss the remaining claim in this case, the design defect claim.[1]

         1. Brewco's Overarching Arguments

         Brewco makes a number of arguments that attack the sufficiency of Smith's products liability action as a whole. The court addresses each of these arguments before moving on to assess the contours of each of Smith's theories of defects in this products liability action. Specifically, Brewco contends that: (1) Smith's own failure to follow the proper lockout/tag out procedures was the proximate cause of his injury as opposed to the trim saw; (2) NAC's defective training of Smith on the proper lockout/tag out procedures was the proximate cause of Smith's injury; and (3) the trim saw was materially altered after Brewco delivered it to NAC so Smith is barred from recovery.

         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 ...

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