United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Florence Division
Bryan Harwell United States District Judge.
products liability action involves design defect and warning
defect claims. Defendants have filed a motion for summary
judgment. See ECF No. 28. The Court grants in part
and denies in part the motion for the reasons
product at issue is the Magliner CooLift delivery system
(“the CooLift”), which consists of a
battery-powered pallet jack and high-density plastic
pallets. On October 13, 2014, Plaintiff Anthony
Hulsizer-a truck driver for the Pepsi Bottling plant in
Conway, South Carolina-was making beverage deliveries using
the CooLift. During one stop, while Mr. Hulsizer was moving
pallets in the back of his truck, the jack became stuck
underneath a pallet. He attempted to slide the jack out by
pushing on it, tilting it forward, and then pulling on it. In
doing so, Mr. Hulsizer injured his back.
January 10, 2017, Mr. Hulsizer and his wife (Rhonda
Bianco-Hulsizer) (collectively, “Plaintiffs”)
filed this products liability action in state court against
Defendants Magline Inc. and Magline International, LLC
(“Defendants” or “Magline”) asserting
five causes of action: negligence/gross negligence, strict
liability, breach of warranties, amalgamation of interests,
loss of consortium. See ECF No. 1-1. Plaintiffs
alleged the jack “had an unsafe tendency to get stuck
in the pallets it was carrying, which resulted in [Mr.
Hulsizer] having to twist and pull the machine to get it out
from under the pallets. This pulling, lifting, and twisting
was the proximate cause of the injury to his back.”
Complaint at ¶ 4. Plaintiffs alleged Defendants
“designed, manufactured, and sold” the CooLift.
February 9, 2017, Defendants removed the action to this Court
based on diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
1332, and they answered and subsequently filed a motion for
summary judgment. See ECF Nos. 1, 3, & 28.
Plaintiffs filed a response in opposition, and Defendants
filed a reply. See ECF Nos. 29 & 31.
judgment is appropriate when no genuine issue of material
fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a
matter of law. Reyazuddin v. Montgomery Cty., Md.,
789 F.3d 407, 413 (4th Cir. 2015); see Fed. R. Civ.
P. 56(a) (“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 judgment as a
matter of law.”). “A party asserting that a fact
cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion
by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record
. . .; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not
establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or
that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to
support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). The facts and
inferences to be drawn from the evidence must be viewed in
the light most favorable to the non-moving party,
Reyazuddin, 789 F.3d at 413, but the Court
“cannot weigh the evidence or make credibility
determinations.” Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of
the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 569 (4th Cir. 2015).
“the mere existence of some alleged factual
dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise
properly supported motion for summary judgment; the
requirement is that there be no genuine issue of
material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). “A dispute of
material fact is ‘genuine' if sufficient evidence
favoring the non-moving party exists for the trier of fact to
return a verdict for that party.” Seastrunk v.
United States, 25 F.Supp.3d 812, 814 (D.S.C. 2014). A
fact is “material” if proof of its existence or
nonexistence would affect disposition of the case under the
applicable law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.
summary judgment stage, “the moving party must
demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.
Once the moving party has met his burden, the nonmoving party
must come forward with some evidence beyond the mere
allegations contained in the pleadings to show that there is
a genuine issue for trial.” Baber v. Hosp. Corp. of
Am., 977 F.2d 872, 874-75 (4th Cir. 1992) (internal
citation omitted). Summary judgment is not warranted unless,
“from the totality of the evidence, including
pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and
affidavits, the [C]ourt believes no genuine issue of material
fact exists for trial and the moving party is entitled to
judgment as a matter of law.” Whiteman v.
Chesapeake Appalachia, L.L.C., 729 F.3d 381, 385 (4th
Cir. 2013); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477
U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).
South Carolina Supreme Court has explained:
[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. When a manufacturing defect
claim is made, a plaintiff alleges that a particular product
was defectively manufactured. When a warning defect claim is
made, a plaintiff alleges that he was not adequately warned
of dangers inherent to a product. When 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.
Watson v. Ford Motor Co., 699 S.E.2d 169, 174 (S.C.
2010). In this case, Plaintiffs are pursuing a
design defect claim and a
warning defect claim against
Defendants,  and they bring these claims under theories
of strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty, as
permitted by South Carolina law. See generally
Rife v. Hitachi Const. Mach. Co., 609 S.E.2d 565, 568
(S.C. Ct. App. 2005) (“A products liability case may be
brought under several theories, including negligence, strict
liability, and warranty.”).
of the theory on which they seek recovery, Plaintiffs must
prove the following three elements: (1) Mr. Hulsizer was
injured by the CooLift; (2) the CooLift, at the time of the
accident, was in essentially the same condition as when it
left the hands of Defendants; and (3) the injury occurred
because the CooLift was in a defective condition unreasonably
dangerous to the user. See Branham v. Ford Motor
Co., 701 S.E.2d 5, 8 (S.C. 2010) (citing Madden v.
Cox, 328 S.E.2d 108, 112 (S.C. Ct. App. 1985)).
Defendants' motion for summary judgment is based on the
third element, as they argue Plaintiffs have not presented
any evidence showing the CooLift was in a defective condition
that was unreasonably dangerous to the user. See ECF
Design Defect Claim
Strict Liability and Warranty Theories
an action based on strict tort or warranty, [a]
plaintiff's case is complete when he has proved the
product, as designed, was in a defective condition
unreasonably dangerous to the user when it left the control
of the defendant, and the defect caused his injuries.”
Madden, 328 S.E.2d at 112 (emphasis added); see
also S.C. Code Ann. § 15-73-10 (South
Carolina's strict liability statute); id. §
36-2-313 (express warranty); id. § 36-2-314
(implied warranty of merchantability); id. §
36-2-315 (implied warranty of fitness for a particular
purpose). “The focus here is on the condition of the
product, without regard to the action of the seller or
manufacturer.” Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., 462
S.E.2d 321, 326 (S.C. Ct. App. 1995). In this case,
Plaintiffs allege the CooLift was defectively designed
because the jack “had an unsafe tendency to get stuck
in the pallets it was carrying.” Compl. at ¶ 4.
argue Plaintiffs' design defect claim fails because they
have not provided a reasonable alternative design for the
CooLift jack or the pallets it carries. ECF No. 28-1 at pp.
12-19. They contend Plaintiffs' retained expert, Dr.
Bryan Durig, has not offered an opinion that satisfies South
Carolina's risk-utility test with its requirement of
showing a feasible alternative design to prove a design
defect. Id. at p. 14.
South Carolina, “the exclusive test in a products
liability design case is the risk-utility test with its
requirement of showing a feasible alternative design.”
Branham, 701 S.E.2d at 14. The risk-utility test states
“a product is unreasonably dangerous and defective if
the danger associated with the use of the product outweighs
the utility of the product, ” Bragg, 462
S.E.2d at 328, and it requires a plaintiff to present
evidence of a reasonable alternative design, which includes
consideration of the (1) costs, (2) safety, and (3)
functionality associated with the alternative design.
Branham, 701 S.E.2d at 16 (“The plaintiff will
be required to point to a design flaw in the product and show
how his alternative design would have prevented the product
from being unreasonably dangerous.”). A risk-utility
“analysis asks the trier of fact to determine whether
the potential increased price of the product (if any), the
potential decrease in the functioning (or utility) of the
product (if any), and the potential increase in other safety
concerns (if any) associated with the proffered alternative
design are worth the benefits that will inhere in the
proposed alternative design.” Id. at 16 n.16.
is well-established that one cannot draw an inference of a
defect from the mere fact a product failed. Accordingly, the
plaintiff must offer some evidence beyond the product's
failure itself to prove that it is unreasonably
dangerous.” Graves v. CAS Med. Sys., Inc., 735
S.E.2d 650, 658-59 (S.C. 2012) (internal citation omitted).
“In some design defect cases, expert testimony is
required to make this showing [of a design flaw and a
feasible alternative design] because the claims are too
complex to be within the ken of the ordinary lay
juror.” Id. at 659. Thus, “[i]n most
design defect cases, plaintiffs offer expert testimony as
evidence to establish their claim.” Watson,
699 S.E.2d at 174.
survive summary judgment on a design defect claim, a
plaintiff must demonstrate that a feasible alternative design
exists for the product at issue. Holst v. KCI Konecranes
Int'l Corp., 699 S.E.2d 715, 719 (S.C. Ct. App.
2010) (citing Disher v. Synthes (U.S.A.), 371
F.Supp.2d 764, 771 (D.S.C. 2005)). “In determining
whether an alternative design is practical or feasible,
courts will look to see whether a risk-utility analysis has
been conducted to weigh the benefits of any new design
against the costs and potentially adverse consequences of the
design.” Id. Thus, at the summary judgment
stage, the district court must determine whether there is
evidence tending to create genuine issues of material fact on
each of the factors (safety, costs, and functionality)
relevant to the risk-utility analysis and its required
showing of an alternative feasible design, in accordance with
Branham. See Holland ex rel. Knox v. Morbark,
Inc., 754 S.E.2d 714, 720 (S.C. Ct. App. 2014);
Quinton v. Toyota Motor Corp., No.
1:10-cv-02187-JMC, 2013 WL 1680555, at *4 (D.S.C. Apr. 17,
2013). “Whether this evidence satisfies the
risk-utility test is ultimately a jury question.”
Branham, 701 S.E.2d at 13-14.
the facts and inferences in the light most favorable to
Plaintiffs, the Court finds a genuine issue of material fact
exists as to whether the CooLift was unreasonably dangerous
as the result of a design defect in the ...