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Hughes v. Medical Depot, Inc.

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

April 23, 2019

Thomas Hughes; and Beverly Hughes, Plaintiffs,
v.
Medical Depot, Inc. dba Drive DeVilbiss Healthcare; AMG Medical, Inc.; and Amazon.com Services, Inc., Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

          RICHARD M. GERGEL UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Amazon.com Services, Inc.'s ("Amazon") Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Dkt. No. 25). For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants in part and denies in part the motion.

         I. Background

         On April 28, 2018, Plaintiff Thomas Hughes was using a Hugo Elite rolling walker, manufactured by Defendants Medical Depot, Inc. ("MDI") and AMG Medical, Inc. ("AMG") while visiting a museum in Georgia. (Dkt. No. 1 at ¶¶ 33 - 34.) While at the museum, Plaintiff sat on the walker and the frame snapped and Plaintiff fell, landing on his right hip and striking his head on the floor. (Id. at ¶¶ 36 - 37.) Plaintiff broke his right hip, and ultimately required surgery and inpatient rehabilitation. (Id. at ¶¶ 38 - 44.) Plaintiff purchased the walker in 2016 through Amazon.com, and Amazon shipped the walker to Plaintiff in South Carolina. (Id. at ¶¶ 24 - 25.) Plaintiff alleges that the product page for the walker on Amazon.com represented that the walker "has a 2 inch height adjustable built-in seat with backrest that provides a perfect place to sit and rest" and was "[d]esigned to support adults up to 300 lbs. and well suited for those that have conditions that compromise balance." (Id. at ¶¶ 29 - 30.)

         Plaintiff filed the action in this Court on August 8, 2018, against Defendants MDI, AMG, Amazon and Amazon.com, Inc.[1] Plaintiff brought four causes of action: strict products liability, negligence, breach of warranty, and loss of consortium. Defendant Amazon moved for judgment on the pleadings, and Plaintiffs oppose the motion. (Dkt. Nos. 25, 30, 31.)

         II. Legal Standard

         "After the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Rule 12(c) motions "dispose of cases in which there is no substantive dispute that warrants the litigants and the court proceeding further." Lewis v. Excel Mech., LLC, 2:13-CV-281-PMD, 2013 WL 4585873 at * 1 (D.S.C. Aug. 28, 2013) quoting 5 Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure, § 1368 (3d ed. 2010). A judgment on the pleadings is only warranted if "the moving party has clearly established that no material issue of fact remains to be resolved and the party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. at * 2 (citations omitted).

         Rule 12(c) motions limit the court's review to the pleadings and "any documents and exhibits attached to and incorporated into the pleadings." Lewis, 2013 WL 4585873 at * 1 (citation omitted). See also Abell Co. v. Bait. Typographical Union No. 12, 338 F.2d 190, 193 (4th Cir. 1964). Like motions to dismiss, Rule 12(c) motions call for the pleadings to be construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Burbach Broad. Co. v. Elkins Radio Corp., 278 F.3d 401, 405-06 (4th Cir. 2002). Accordingly, "[t]he court must accept all well pleaded factual allegations in the non-moving party's pleadings as true and reject all contravening assertions in the moving party's pleadings as false." Lewis, 2013 WL 4585873, at * 2 (citation omitted).

         III. Discussion

         South Carolina follows the doctrine of lex loci deliciti for tort actions and applies the law of the state in which the injury occurred. Boone v. Boone, 345 S.C. 8, 13, 546 S.E.2d 191, 193 (2001). Therefore, as the injury occurred in Georgia, the Court must apply the law of Georgia to the strict liability and negligence claims.

         Plaintiffs, however, argue that the Court should decline to apply Georgia law under the "public policy exception." In general, under this exception South Carolina "will not apply foreign law if it violates the public policy of South Carolina." Boone, 345 S.C. at 14. Plaintiff argues that South Carolina adopted the comments to § 402 A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts in applying strict liability to product sellers, See S.C. Code Ann. § 15-73-30, which state that "public policy demands that the burden of accidental injuries caused by products intended for consumption be placed upon those who market them...." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 4O2A(I965). However, this statement falls short of meeting the public policy exception. As the Supreme Court of South Carolina explained, in order to decline to apply foreign law as "against the policy of our laws" a court must determine that the law "is against good morals or natural justice, or that for some other such reason the enforcement of it would be prejudicial to the general interests of our own citizens.'" Rauton v. Pullman Co., 183 S.C. 495, 191 S.E. 416, 422 (1937) (citations omitted). In other words, it is not enough for the foreign state's laws to be against the policy underlying a law, it must also be against "good morals or natural justice," or be otherwise prejudicial. See, e.g. Dawkins v. State, 306 S.C. 391, 393, 412 S.E.2d 407, 408 (1991) ("The 'good morals or natural justice' of our State are not violated when foreign law is applied to preclude a tort action for money damages...even if recovery may be had upon application of South Carolina law."). See also Rogers v. Lee, 414 S.C. 225, 235, 777 S.E.2d 402, 407 (Ct. App. 2015) (same).

         Here, while Plaintiff identified the policy underlying South Carolina's statute, there is no indication that Georgia law, barring an action for strict liability against a seller, violates the "good morals or natural justice" of South Carolina. This is further supported by the fact that the "[t]he South Carolina case law finding violations of public policy pertain to 'prohibited marriages, wagers, lotteries, racing, contracts for gaming or the sale of liquors...' and interspousal immunity[.]" Grimes v. Young Life, Inc., No. CV 8:16-1410-HMH, 2017 WL 5634239, at *5 (D.S.C. Feb. 17, 2017), reconsideration denied, No. CV 8:16-1410-HMH, 2017 WL 5640611 (D.S.C. Apr. 3, 2017), and aff'dsub nom. Grimes v. Inner Quest Inc., 731 Fed.Appx. 249 (4th Cir. 2018) (citations omitted). In contrast, courts in this District have refused to apply the public policy exception where foreign law would bar product liability claims. See Butler v. Ford Motor Co., 724 F.Supp.2d 575, 583 (D.S.C. 2010) (applying North Carolina's shorter statute of repose that barred all claims in product liability action which included claims for strict liability and negligence). Therefore, the public policy exception does not apply here, and Georgia law applies to the claims for strict liability and negligence under the doctrine of lex loci deliciti.

         Regarding strict liability, both parties agree that, under Georgia law, product sellers are excluded from coverage of the strict liability statute. See Ga. Code Ann. §51-1-11.1; Williams v. Pac. Cycle, Inc., No. 1:13-CV-875-ODE, 2015 WL 11215854, at *4 (N.D.Ga. Oct. 19, 2015), aff'd, 661 Fed.Appx. 716 (11th Cir. 2016). (See also Dkt. No. 30 at 7.) Therefore, as the Complaint solely identifies Amazon as a seller, and not a manufacturer, Plaintiffs' claims for strict liability are subject to dismissal.

         Regarding negligence, under Georgia law, "[i]t is the general rule that a vendor or dealer who is not the manufacturer is under no obligation to test an article, purchased and sold by him, for the purpose of discovering latent or concealed defects...." Fed. Ins. Co. v. Farmer's SupplyStore, Inc.,252 Ga.App. 17, 19, 555 S.E.2d 238, 240 (2001) citing King Hardware Co. v. Ennis,39 Ga.App. 355, 147 S.E. 119, 121 (1929). Further, a seller may assume that a manufacturer made a properly constructed product. See Id.; Gaddy v. Terex Corp., No. 1:14-CV-1928-WSD, 2017 WL 3476318, at *6 (N.D.Ga. May 5, 2017) ("[defendant] was entitled to rely on the manufacturer's certification that the steel had the strength and grade represented."). Therefore, under Georgia law, Defendant Amazon was under no ...


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