August 23, 2010
South Carolina Supreme Court vacates $31M verdict against Ford Motor
In overturning a $31 million dollar verdict against Ford Motor Co., ($16M in actual damages and $15M in punitive damages) the South Carolina Supreme Court adopted the "the risk-utility test with its requirement of showing a feasible alternative design."
The gist of the case involved a defective seat belt sleeve claim, and a "handling and stability" design defect claim related to the rollover issues allegedly found in the 1987 Ford Bronco II 4×2.
The South Carolina Supreme Court stated:
While the consumer expectations test fits well in manufacturing defect cases, we do agree with Ford that the test is ill-suited in design defect cases. We hold today that the exclusive test in a products liability design case is the risk-utility test with its requirement of showing a feasible alternative design. In doing so, we recognize our Legislature’s presence in the area of strict liability for products liability.
In sum, in a product liability design defect action, the plaintiff must present evidence of a reasonable alternative design. 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. This presentation of an alternative design must include consideration of the costs, safety and functionality associated with the alternative design
There is also a discussion of Plaintiff’s counsel’s improper remarks made during closing statement in the opinion. Specifically:
“The closing argument of Branham’s counsel was designed to inflame and prejudice the jury.
It is unmistakable that the closing argument relied heavily on inadmissible evidence. In addition, as will be discussed below, much of the prejudice resulting from the improper evidence was merged in closing argument with Branham’s pursuit of punitive damages in requesting that the jury punish Ford for harm to Branham and others. (emphasis in original) The closing argument invited the jury to base its verdict on passion rather than reason. The closing argument denied Ford a fair trial.”
“How bad of a judicial hellhole is Hampton County? Though Hale was a co-defendant, she cooperated with the plaintiffs throughout the trial in their case against Ford, even sitting at the plaintiffs' table; but because the judge classified Hale as a co-defendant, it meant that Hale got half of the peremptory challenges of the "defense."”