Branham v. Ford Motor Co.

Decision Date17 November 2010
Docket NumberNo. 26860.,26860.
Citation701 S.E.2d 5,390 S.C. 203
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesJesse BRANHAM, Jr., as Guardian ad Litem for Jesse Branham, III, and Jesse Branham, Jr., Respondent, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY and Cheryl Jane Hale, Defendants, Of Whom Ford Motor Company is the Appellant.

C. Mitchell Brown, William C. Wood, Jr., Beth Burke Richardson, and A. Mattison Bogan, all of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, of Columbia, Elbert S. Dorn and Nicholas W. Gladd, both of Turner, Padgett, Graham & Laney, PA, of Columbia, for Appellant.

John R. Hetrick and Robert J. Bonds, both of Hetrick, Harvin & Bonds, of Walterboro, Ronnie L. Crosby, John E. Parker, Grahame E. Holmes, all of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, PA, of Hampton, for Respondent.


This is a direct appeal in a product liability case tried to a jury in Hampton County. The jury awarded the plaintiff $16,000,000 in actual damages and $15,000,000 in punitive damages. We affirm in part, reverse in part and remand for a new trial.


This product liability action involves a 1987 Ford Bronco II 4x2, manufactured in 1986. Cheryl Hale (or her husband) purchased the 1987 Ford Bronco in June of 1999 for anominal sum.1 At the time of sale, the Bronco had 137,500 miles on it.

On June 17, 2001, Hale was driving her Bronco along Cromwell Road in Colleton County. Hale was driving several children to her house. Hale's daughter was seated in the front passenger seat. Plaintiff Jesse Branham, III, was riding in the backseat. Hale recalled that the children were "all excited." No one was wearing a seatbelt.

The weather was clear and, according to Hale, she was not speeding. Hale admittedly took her eyes off the road and turned to the backseat to ask the children to quiet down. When she took her eyes off the road, the Bronco veered towards the shoulder of the road, and the rear right wheel leftthe roadway. When Hale realized that her inattention resulted in the vehicle leaving the roadway, she responded by overcorrecting to the left. Hale's overcorrection led to the vehicle "shaking." The vehicle rolled over. Branham was thrown from the vehicle and was injured.

Branham filed this lawsuit against Ford Motor Company and Hale in Hampton County. At trial,2 Branham did not seriously pursue the claim against Hale. The case against Ford was based on two product liability claims, one a defective seatbelt sleeve claim and the other, a "handling and stability" design defect claim related to the vehicle's tendency to rollover. Both of these claims were pursued in negligence and strict liability.3 Ford denied liability and, among other things, asserted Hale's negligence caused the accident. The jury, in a general verdict,4 found both Ford and Hale responsible and awarded Branham $16,000,000 in actual damages and $15,000,000 in punitive damages. Only Ford appeals. The direct appeal is before us pursuant to Rule 204(b), SCACR, certification.

A.The Seatbelt Sleeve Negligence Claim

Branham alleged Ford was negligent "[i]n selling the Bronco II with a defective rear occupant restraint system." The amended complaint contains no specifications of Ford's purported negligence. At trial, Branham claimed Ford was negligent in failing to adequately test the seatbelt sleeve, but he did not challenge the seatbelt sleeve design. Branham filed a companion strict liability claim concerning the seatbeltsleeve. Ford successfully moved for a directed verdict on the strict liability seatbelt sleeve claim.

The trial court dismissed the strict liability claim on the ground that the seatbelt sleeve was not as a matter of law in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user at the time of manufacture. Based on this premise, Ford contends the companion negligence claim must fail, for all products liability actions, regardless of the stated theory, have common elements. Madden v. Cox, 284 S.C. 574, 579, 328 S.E.2d 108, 112 (Ct.App.1985) ("In a products liability action the plaintiff must establish three things, regardless of the theory on which he seeks recovery: (1) that he was injured by the product; (2) that the product, at the time of the accident, was in essentially the same condition as when it left the hands of the defendant; and (3) that the injury occurred because the product was in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user."). Ford, therefore, concludes that the negligence claim (which required Branham to prove that the seatbelt sleeve was in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user) should have been dismissed. We agree. When an element common to multiple claims is not established, all related claims must fail.

A negligence theory imposes the additional burden on a plaintiff "of demonstrating the defendant (seller or manufacturer) failed to exercise due care in some respect, and, unlike strict liability, the focus is on the conduct of the seller or manufacturer, and liability is determined according to fault." Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., 319 S.C. 531, 539, 462 S.E.2d 321, 326 (Ct.App.1995). The fault-based element is of no moment where, as here, there is no showing in the first instance of a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user.

In addition, Ford asserts there is no separate "failure to test claim" apart from the duty to design and manufacture a product that is not defective and unreasonably dangerous. We agree, for if a product is not in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user, an alleged failure to test cannot be the proximate cause of an injury. The failure to establish that the seatbelt sleeve was in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user for purposes of the strictliability claim requires the dismissal of the companion negligence claim.

Relying on Bragg, the trial court determined it appropriate to grant a directed verdict on the strict liability claim, while at the same time allowing the negligence claim to go forward. We find the trial court's reliance on Bragg misplaced.

In Bragg, the trial court directed a verdict in favor of the manufacturer with respect to the strict liability claim, but refused to grant a directed verdict on the negligence claims. 319 S.C. at 538, 462 S.E.2d at 325. Bragg alleged two negligence claims: negligence "in failing to place appropriate warnings" on the product and another negligence claim "in supplying [a product] that was defective[ly] [designed]." Id. at 537-38, 462 S.E.2d at 325. The jury returned a verdict against Bragg on the negligence claims.

Bragg appealed the dismissal of the strict liability claim, "contend[ing] 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." Id. at 538, 462 S.E.2d at 325. The court of appeals in Bragg affirmed the trial court and noted that "[s]trict liability and negligence are not mutually exclusive theories of recovery; that is, an injury may give rise to claims that can be established either under principles of strict liability or negligence, and failure to prove one theory does not preclude proving the other." Id. at 539, 462 S.E.2d at 326.

While we agree that strict liability and negligence are not mutually exclusive theories of recovery, we caution against a broad reading of Bragg in this regard. An analytical framework that turns solely on whether strict liability and negligence are mutually exclusive theories of recovery may miss the mark. As noted, the negligence claim must have a fault-based element, which is not required for a strict liability claim. Where one claim is dismissed and a question arises as to the continuing viability of the companion claim, the critical inquiry is to ascertain the basis for the dismissal. If one claim is dismissed and the basis of the dismissal rests on a commonelement shared by the companion claim, the companion claim must also be dismissed.

In the present case, because the strict liability claim was dismissed due to the absence of an element shared by the companion negligence claim, the negligence claim should have been dismissed as well.

The trial court determined as a matter of law that the seatbelt sleeve was not in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user. Consequently, the absence of this common, shared element required the dismissal of the strict liability claim and the companion negligence claim.5 The trial court erred in failing to direct a verdict as to the negligence seatbelt sleeve claim.6

B.The "Handling and Stability" Design Defect Claim

The "handling and stability" design defect claim (strict liability and negligence) is the gravamen of Branham's case. Branham alleged a design defect related to the rollover propensity of the Bronco. Ford appeals from the denial of its motions to dismiss the strict liability and negligence design defect claims. Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Branham, we find no error in the submission of these design defect claims to the jury. Pye v. Estate of Fox, 369 S.C. 555, 564, 633 S.E.2d 505, 509 (2006) (stating that on appeal from the denial of a directed verdict motion, the evidence must be viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmovant).

We begin with an overview of the technical information involved in the design defect claims. Ford uses the term "stability index" to describe the overall stability of a vehicle. The stability index is a comparison of the height and width ofthe vehicle, expressed in a numerical term. A closely connected term is the center of gravity. A vehicle's center of gravity relates to what one usually thinks of as "top heavy" or "stable." The lower the center of gravity in a vehicle, the more stable it is. Conversely, the higher the center of gravity (top heavy), the less stable the...

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