June 4, 2019
From Charleston County J. C. Nicholson, Jr., Circuit Court
William E. Applegate, IV, of Yarborough Applegate, LLC, of
Charleston, Kathleen Chewning Barnes, of Barnes Law Firm,
LLC, of Hampton, and Stephen E. Van Gaasbeck, of Law Offices
of Stephen E. Van Gassbeck, of Helotes TX, for Appellants.
Kenneth Carter, Jr. and Carmelo Barone Sammataro, both of
Turner Padget Graham & Laney, PA, of Columbia, Bettis
Cantelou Rainsford, Jr., of Raymond J. Doumar, P.C., of
Augusta GA, and Robert L. Wise, of Bowman & Brooke, LLP,
of Richmond VA, for Respondent.
and Claudia Newbern sued Ford Motor Company alleging strict
liability and negligence claims against Ford because of
injuries Mr. Newbern suffered when the airbag in their
vehicle deployed during an accident. On appeal, the Newberns
argue the trial court erred in granting Ford's motion for
directed verdict. Finding a lack of evidence in the record to
support the Newberns' claims, we affirm.
December 28, 2012, the Newberns were involved in an accident
with another vehicle driven by Stephen McGee. Claudia Newbern
was diving the couple's 2009 Ford Focus and Steven
Newbern was riding in the passenger seat when McGee's
vehicle hit the right front passenger side of the
Newberns' Focus. The Newberns' driver and passenger
airbags deployed during the accident. Mr. Newbern suffered
severe injuries to his face and eye resulting in loss of his
right eye. The Newberns filed suit against Ford in May 2013
claiming these injuries were the result of a defective airbag
system. The Newberns claim Ford should be held responsible
under strict liability and negligence theories.
the trial before a jury, the Newberns called Ramaniyam
Krishnaswami, a Ford employee, as an adverse witness to
testify as to the design of the airbag sensing system. At the
close of the Newberns' case, Ford moved for a directed
verdict arguing the Newberns did not prove the existence of a
design defect and did not present expert testimony on the
defectiveness of the design or a feasible alternative design.
The next day, September 16, 2016, the trial court granted
Ford's motion. The Newberns filed a motion for a new
trial, which the trial court denied. This appeal followed.
ruling on a motion for directed verdict, "the trial
court is required to view the evidence and the inferences
that reasonably can be drawn therefrom in the light most
favorable to the party opposing the motions and to deny the
motions where either the evidence yields more than one
inference or its inference is in doubt." Law v. S.C.
Dep't of Corr., 368 S.C. 424, 434, 629 S.E.2d 642,
648 (2006). The appellate court applies the same standard in
reviewing the trial court's grant or denial of a motion
for directed verdict. Allegro, Inc. v. Scully, 418
S.C. 24, 32, 791 S.E.2d 140, 144 (2016). "An appellate
court will reverse the trial court's grant of a directed
verdict when any evidence supports the party opposing the
directed verdict." Graves v. Horry-Georgetown Tech.
Coll., 391 S.C. 1, 7, 704 S.E.2d 350, 354 (Ct. App.
Newberns claim the airbags in their 2009 Ford Focus deployed
when they should not have due to a defectively designed
airbag system. The Newberns brought this cause of action
under the crashworthiness doctrine. As explained by our
supreme court in Donze v. General Motors, LLC, 420
S.C. 8, 19, 800 S.E.2d 479, 485 (2017), the underlying
premise of the crashworthiness doctrine is that
"manufacturers are only liable for enhanced damages
caused by a design defect when the defect does not cause the
initial collision . . . ." "Liability for a design
defect may be based on negligence, strict liability or
warranty." Priest v. Brown, 302 S.C. 405, 411,
396 S.E.2d 638, 641 (Ct. App. 1990). The Newberns alleged
strict liability and negligence as the bases of their claims.
South Carolina law, in order to recover in a products
liability action, a plaintiff must prove: "(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) that 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., 319 S.C. 531, 539, 462 S.E.2d 321, 326
(Ct. App. 1995). If the product liability action is based on
strict liability when a design defect is alleged, "the
plaintiff must prove the product, as designed, was in an
unreasonably dangerous or defective condition. The focus here
is on the condition of the product, without regard to the
action of the seller or manufacturer." Id. at
540, 462 S.E.2d at 326 (citations omitted). See also
S.C. Code Ann. § 15-73-10 (2005) (imposing liability on
seller for defective products). In Branham v. Ford Motor
Company, 390 S.C. 203, 220, 701 S.E.2d 5, 14 (2010), our
supreme court adopted the risk-utility test as the exclusive
test in products liability design cases. Under the
risk-utility test, a product is "unreasonably dangerous
and defective if the danger associated with the use of the