Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., HI-RANGE

CourtCourt of Appeals of South Carolina
Citation462 S.E.2d 321,319 S.C. 531
Decision Date03 April 1995
Docket NumberHI-RANGE,No. 2393,INC,2393
PartiesProd.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 14,387 Betty BRAGG, as Personal Representative of the Estate of James Bragg, Appellant, v., Respondent. . Heard

Rodney M. Brown, of Younts, Alford, Brown & Goodson, Fountain Inn, for appellant.

Frank H. Gibbes, III, and Stephanie Burton, both of Gibbes & Clarkson, Greenville, for respondent.


This is a products liability case. Betty Bragg, as the personal representative of the Estate of James Robert Bragg (collectively referred to as "Bragg"), brought this action against the manufacturer of an aerial device, Hi-Ranger, Inc. (Hi-Ranger), and the distributor of the aerial device, Power Equipment Company, alleging claims based upon strict liability, implied warranties, and negligence. 1 Hi-Ranger filed a general denial to the action and put forth the following defenses: (1) contributory negligence, (2) assumption of the risk, (3) intervening negligence, (4) substantial change in condition of the product after its sale, (5) open and obvious danger, and (6) misuse of the product pursuant to South Carolina Code Ann. § 15-73-20 (1976). During the trial, Hi-Ranger moved for a directed verdict on all causes of action. After the conclusion of Bragg's case, the trial judge partially granted Hi-Ranger's motion and dismissed Bragg's claims based upon strict liability and warranty. He denied the motion for directed verdict on the negligence cause of action. The case went to the jury on the negligence claim and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Hi-Ranger. Bragg appeals the court's ruling on the directed verdict motion and several portions of the jury charge. 2 We affirm.

Scope Of Review

It is axiomatic that a trial court must view the evidence and all reasonable inferences to be drawn from it in the light most favorable to the party opposing a motion for directed verdict. If more than one reasonable inference can be drawn from the evidence, the court must submit the case to the jury. Fleming v. Borden Inc., 316 S.C. 452, 450 S.E.2d 589 (1994). However, where the only reasonable inference from the evidence is that there has been a failure of proof as to a material element of the plaintiff's cause of action, it becomes the duty of the court to resolve the issue against the party having the burden of proof by directing a verdict. Horton v. Greyhound, Corp., 241 S.C. 430, 128 S.E.2d 776 (1962).


James Robert Bragg was employed by Y.C. Ballenger Electrical Contractor, Inc. as a lineman. Ballenger is a large electrical contractor which performs work primarily for Duke Power Company. On June 25, 1990, James Bragg and his partner, Scott Rogers, were involved in a pole change-out procedure for Duke Power working in an aerial bucket truck on energized power lines. Bragg and Rogers were moving electrical lines from a lower pole to a newer and higher pole. The aerial device, which is affixed to a truck, was manufactured by Hi-Ranger. 3 The aerial device was equipped with quick disconnect couplings near the bucket. The couplings permit hydraulic tools to be connected at the bucket for use by workers standing inside the bucket. The couplings also seal off or stop hydraulic fluid from flowing once the hydraulic tool is disconnected.

Bragg was using a hydraulic impact wrench to assist him in his work. This hydraulically-driven wrench was being fed hydraulic fluid under pressure by two hoses. Rogers was on the ground. Rogers testified he heard "a little pop or something" and then heard Bragg yell to turn the truck off. Rogers jumped in the back of the truck to turn off the hydraulic fluid that ran through hoses located along the boom. The aerial bucket was on fire and Bragg jumped out of it. Bragg died several days later from injuries sustained in the fall.

Shortly before the accident, a Ballenger maintenance mechanic replaced the tool hose on the bucket. The tool hose was orange, but the mechanic improperly replaced it with a black hose. The black hose was a conductive as opposed to a nonconductive hose. The aerial bucket caught fire when the conductive tool hose attached to the impact wrench came in contact with more than one energized power line. Several linemen testified they knew that only nonconductive hoses should be used on the aerial bucket, but they did not know an orange hose was nonconductive and a black hose was conductive.

At trial, Bragg presented two expert witnesses. The first was a retired mechanical engineer who was declared an expert in mechanical engineering and hydraulics. Bragg's case depended largely upon this expert and she endeavored to use this testimony to establish a jury issue as to whether the use of standard quick disconnect couplings on the aerial device rendered it defective. The expert testified that had Hi-Ranger designed a special quick disconnect coupling device to be used in the aerial bucket, the improper use of a conductive hose could have been avoided. 4 He testified the couplings used by Hi-Ranger were a standard design. According to him, such couplings were not defective from a functional standpoint, but were defective from a safety standpoint. During cross-examination, the engineering expert testified he did not know if the quick disconnect couplings on the aerial bucket at the time of the accident in 1990 were the same ones that were on the unit when it was manufactured in 1984. He also testified he did not know of any aerial device manufacturer who offered the special design quick disconnect couplings he proposed. Furthermore, he conceded the special device he designed was only for demonstration purposes and would not work.

Bragg's next expert, who was qualified in the fields of psychology and human factors, testified about warnings. In his opinion, the aerial bucket was defective because it did not have an adequate warning attached to it advising of the danger of using a conductive hose. There was evidence of a warning decal placed on Hi-Ranger units after Bragg's accident which called attention to the color of hoses. In the witness's opinion, if such a label had been on the aerial bucket at the time of the accident, it would have helped prevent it. However, further testimony in the case revealed the truck used by Bragg had been in two accidents and had been refurbished and repainted. 5 When the aerial device was returned to Ballenger after the repairs, the majority of the safety decals that were previously on the boom of the device had been painted over or removed. 6

At the conclusion of Bragg's case, the court granted Hi-Ranger's motion for directed verdict on the strict liability cause of action, but denied the motion for a directed verdict on the negligence cause of action. After the ruling, Hi-Ranger presented testimony and evidence in its defense. The court charged the jury on negligence principles with respect to defective design and failure to warn.

I. Direction of Verdict on Strict Liability

In support of her strict liability theory, Bragg's hydraulics expert testified the absence of special quick disconnect couplings which would preclude the connection of a conductive hydraulic hose to the bucket of the aerial device rendered the aerial device unfit for its intended purpose, defective, and unreasonably dangerous to its user. Bragg's human affairs expert further contended the aerial device was defective and unreasonably dangerous as a result of Hi-Ranger's failure to give adequate warnings as to the risk involved in using the product; specifically, Hi-Ranger failed to affix a decal in the proximity of the bucket which would have warned that a nonconductive hose must be used at the bucket of the aerial device.

Bragg also contended Hi-Ranger was liable under a negligence theory based on the same facts and circumstances as the cause of action in strict liability. Bragg's complaint alleged Hi-Ranger was negligent in failing to place appropriate warnings on the aerial device. The complaint likewise alleged Hi-Ranger was negligent in supplying an aerial device that was defective not from a functional, but from a safety standpoint, and which could have been made safe by a specially designed quick disconnect coupling device.

In directing a verdict for Hi-Ranger on the strict liability claim, the trial judge concluded: (1) Bragg failed to introduce any evidence that the aerial device was defective or unreasonably dangerous because of a defect in the quick disconnect couplings in 1984 at the time the aerial device was sold; (2) Bragg failed to present evidence of a feasible design alternative for the quick disconnect couplings she claimed were defective due to inadequate design; (3) the aerial device had been substantially changed between the time of its sale in 1984 and the 1990 accident; (4) the warnings on the aerial device at the time of the 1990 accident had been removed, painted over, or replaced and therefore were not substantially in the same condition as they were at the time the unit was sold in 1984; and (5) Bragg failed to establish the aerial device proximately caused her decedent's injuries and death. As relates to the negligence action, the judge concluded, "[t]here is some evidence here which, if believed, could show some degree of negligence on the part of [Hi-Ranger] proximately resulting in injury to Mr. Bragg." He further noted, "[t]he questions of contributory negligence and assumption of the risk are always, of course, jury issues."

On appeal, Bragg contends the court's decision to grant the motion for directed verdict on strict liability, while denying the motion for directed verdict on negligence, was logically inconsistent and reversible error because those claims are virtually identical and require the same proof. We disagree.

A products liability case may be brought under several theories, including negligence,...

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