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Hulsizer v. Magline Inc.

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

October 29, 2018

Anthony Hulsizer and Rhonda Bianco-Hulsizer, Plaintiffs,
Magline, Inc. and Magline International, LLC, Defendants.


          R. Bryan Harwell United States District Judge.

         This 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 herein.[1]

         Background [2]

         The product at issue is the Magliner CooLift delivery system (“the CooLift”), which consists of a battery-powered pallet jack and high-density plastic pallets.[3] 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.

         On 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, [4] and 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. Id.

         On 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.

         Legal Standard

         Summary 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).

         Moreover, “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.

         At the 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).


         The 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, [5] and they bring these claims under theories of strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty, as permitted by South Carolina law.[6] 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.”).

         Regardless 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 No. 28.

         I. Design Defect Claim

         A. Strict Liability and Warranty Theories

         “In 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.

         Defendants 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.

         1. Applicable Law

         In 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.[7] 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.

         “It 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.

         To 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.

         2. Analysis

         Viewing 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 ...

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