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South Carolina Auto Liability Case May Set New Bar For Awarding Damages

Posted On May 04, 2017

Questions before the South Carolina Supreme Court could change whether negligence in causing a car accident now may be considered in awarding damages for injuries allegedly caused by a vehicle’s design flaw.

The answers to questions of state law certified in the federal products liability case Donze v. General Motors hinge on the South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision on whether comparative negligence, which apportions damages based on fault, applies in crashworthiness cases.

For years, South Carolina plaintiffs have been able to successfully argue that the circumstances of what caused an accident are irrelevant when considering liability based on crashworthiness, which is the degree to which a vehicle will protect its occupants from the effects of an accident – often referred to as the second collision.

Under the crashworthiness theory in South Carolina, a manufacturer can be held responsible for a design flaw of the vehicle that enhances or aggravates the injuries above and beyond those from the initial collision.

In Donze v. General Motors, the plaintiff is seeking damages only for those enhanced injuries in a crash. The U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina laid out the background of the case:

On Nov. 12, 2012, plaintiff Reid Harold Donze was a passenger in his 1987 Chevrolet pickup truck driven by Allen Brazell in Greenville County. The court said there was evidence that Donze and Brazell had been smoking synthetic marijuana, “Spice,” earlier that morning, although that was disputed by the plaintiff.

The Chevrolet failed to yield at a stop sign and pulled directly into the path of a Ford F-350 truck towing a horse trailer. The plaintiff’s pickup was hit and burst into flames. Brazell died and Donze was severely burned. Donze alleges that “GM’s placement of the fuel tanks outside of the Chevrolet truck’s frame constitutes a design defect which made the tank vulnerable in a collision.”

The trial court has presented the South Carolina Supreme Court two questions for consideration:

  1. Does comparative negligence in causing an accident apply in a crashworthiness case when the plaintiff alleges claims of strict liability and breach of warranty and is seeking damages relating only to the plaintiff's enhanced injuries?
  2. Does South Carolina's public policy bar against impaired drivers recovering damages apply in a crashworthiness case when the plaintiff alleges claims of strict liability and breach of warranty?

In determining responsibility for a collision, a South Carolina jury considers the negligence of every party directly involved in an accident and the jury’s verdict is adjusted by the court to reflect the percentages of fault assigned by the jury. But in a crashworthiness case under existing South Carolina product liability law, it’s all or nothing. A jury may rule there was a defect that caused enhanced injuries and award the plaintiff or decide there was no defect and rule for the defendant.

If the South Carolina Supreme Court rules for the manufacturer in Donze v. General Motors, defendants will be able to present all information to the jurors and ask them allocate fault for everything under the comparative fault system. For example, the jury could consider the negligent acts of all parties that set a chain of events in motion, causing all or part of plaintiff’s injuries. Even if the jury determined a defect existed, it still could determine the defect was not the cause of the injury.

Barring broad, affirmative answers to the certified questions from the U.S. District Court, the public policy question in Donze v. General Motors may give the court an opportunity to carve out a much more narrow exception to consideration of fault in crashworthiness cases. Ordinarily, public policy would bar a drunk driver from recovering damages where his intoxication caused or contributed to his injuries. While fault normally would not be considered in a product liability crashworthiness case, the South Carolina Supreme Court may provide an exception under the circumstances in this case.

The Product Liability Advisory Council has chimed in with a “friend of the court” brief supporting the defense, noting that courts in at least 28 states have concluded that comparative fault principles apply to crashworthiness claims.

For now, South Carolina is not among those states, but this case is expected to clarify the issue or open the door for manufacturers to present evidence on negligence when juries consider damages for injuries alleged to have been caused by a vehicle’s design flaw.