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Comparative Negligence and Crashworthiness Collide at the South Carolina Supreme Court

June 13, 2017

The South Carolina Supreme Court recently held that the comparative negligence of a plaintiff, in causing a vehicular collision, is not a defense to product liability crashworthiness claims brought under the theories of strict liability and implied warranty. Donze v. General Motors, LLC, No. 27719, 2017 WL 2153919, _____ S.E.2d _____ (S.C. May 17, 2017). The court also ruled that the public policy of South Carolina does not bar a plaintiff, who was allegedly intoxicated by drugs or alcohol at the time of the underlying accident, from bringing a crashworthiness claim. The court decided these matters of first impression in South Carolina after certification of the issues from the federal district court. The impactful decision in Donze requires close scrutiny and analysis on the part of product liability attorneys and trial courts to determine the scope of its future application. 

The underlying facts in Donze are fairly straightforward but nonetheless serve as a troubling backdrop for the rule of law established. On the day of the accident, plaintiff Donze and his friend, Brazell, llegedly smoked synthetic marijuana, and while operating Donze’s 1987 Chevrolet pickup truck, disregarded a stop sign and ran directly into the path of a Ford F-350 truck pulling a horse trailer. Unable to stop, the Ford struck Donze’s truck on the driver’s side. After impact, the Chevrolet ignited and Brazell, who was driving “died as a result of the fire.” Donze suffered burns over eighty percent of his body[1]. An important fact is that Donze’s injuries from “the initial collision were limited to a fractured rib and hip bones.” In his crashworthiness action against GM, Donze sought recovery only for the “enhanced injuries” (severe burns), not the fractures. His crashworthiness claims contend that GM’s placement of the fuel tank outside of the frame on the 1987 Chevrolet truck was a defective design which proximately caused his enhanced injuries. 

As part of its analysis, the court surveyed legal precedent from other states and noted that, of the twenty-two states addressing the issue, sixteen permit a comparative fault analysis to reduce a plaintiff’s recovery in crashworthiness cases and six do not. The court also relied heavily on the well-known Jimenez v. Chrysler opinions of the District Court for South Carolina and the Fourth Circuit[2]. Critical to the Court’s ruling was the premise that the crashworthiness doctrine, by its very nature, holds manufacturers liable only for enhanced damages caused by a design defect which itself is not responsible for the initial or first collision. Citing Jimenez, the Supreme Court noted that the doctrine of crashworthiness itself divides and allocates fault to a manufacturer only for the damages it caused. Thus, to allow comparative negligence or the negligence of another party to further dilute the manufacturer’s liability would be inconsistent with the doctrine. The court further held that to allow comparative negligence as a defense in crashworthiness claims brought under strict liability and warranty theories “would conflate those two distinct doctrines with ordinary negligence.” Interestingly, the court never mentioned comment n to the Restatement (Second) of Torts §402A, codified by S.C. Code Ann. §15-73-30, which generally provides that "contributory negligence" is not a defense to strict liability.

The Donze court notes that Jimenez was a crashworthiness action brought under a negligence theory as opposed to strict liability or implied warranty. However, it perceived no reason to distinguish between these theories of liability when examined in conjunction with the crashworthiness doctrine; which, by its terms, focuses on the “manufacturer’s liability for enhanced injuries following a foreseeable collision” because any negligence by the plaintiff (or another) which contributed to the initial collision is “entirely irrelevant.”

The Donze court concluded that comparative negligence does not apply to permit the negligence of another – whether plaintiff or another defendant – in causing an initial collision to reduce the liability of a manufacturer for enhanced injuries in a crashworthiness case.  The Donze court also rejected GM’s argument that prohibitions against first party “dram shop” claims and other statutory enactments penalizing impaired drivers constitute a public policy which would bar the claim of an intoxicated plaintiff in a crashworthiness action. The Court concluded that any such defense to the statutory schemes of strict liability and implied warranty would have to be created by the legislature, not the courts. 

Donze will undoubtedly result in much debate among attorneys on both sides of the issue. Manufacturers and the attorneys who represent them will be encouraged by the concurring opinion which cautions courts from interpreting this case too broadly. 

   



[1] Because of GM’s argument regarding imputed negligence pursuant to a joint enterprise, the Court treated Brazell’s negligence as that of Donze for purposes of its opinion.

[2] Jimenez v. Chrysler Corp., 74 F. Supp. 2d 548 (D.S.C. 1999), affirmed on this issue and reversed on other grounds by Jimenez v. Daimler Chrysler Corp., 269 F. 3d 439 (4th Cir. 2001)


Elbert S. Dorn of Nexsen Pruet has practiced in the Product Liability area for over 30 years.