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Newbern v. Ford Motor Co.

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

August 21, 2019

Steven Newbern and Claudia Newbern, Appellants,
Ford Motor Company, Respondent. Appellate Case No. 2016-002209

          Heard June 4, 2019

          Appeal From Charleston County J. C. Nicholson, Jr., Circuit Court Judge.

          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.

          Joseph 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.

          LOCKEMY, C.J.

         Steven 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.


         On 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.

         During 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.


         When 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. 2010).


         The 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.

         Under 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 product ...

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