Rife v. HITACHI CONST. MACHINERY CO., LTD., 3936.

Citation609 S.E.2d 565,363 S.C. 209
Decision Date31 January 2005
Docket NumberNo. 3936.,3936.
CourtCourt of Appeals of South Carolina
PartiesRichard RIFE, Appellant, v. HITACHI CONSTRUCTION MACHINERY CO., LTD., Euclid-Hitachi Heavy Equipment, Ltd., Deere-Hitachi Construction Machinery Corporation, Hitachi Construction Machinery (America) Corporation, American Equipment Company, and Does 1-5 Inclusive, Defendants, of whom Hitachi Construction Machinery Co., Ltd. and American Equipment Company are Respondents.

William Stuart Duncan, of Georgetown, for Appellant.

N. Ward Lambert, of Greenville, for Respondent, American Equipment Company, Inc.

J. Calhoun Watson, of Columbia, for Respondent, Hitachi Construction Machinery Co., Ltd.

ANDERSON, J.

In this products liability case, Richard Rife appeals the trial court's orders granting summary judgment to Hitachi Construction Machinery Co., Ltd. (Hitachi) and American Equipment Company (American Equipment). We affirm.

FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On June 25, 1999, Rife sustained an injury while operating a 1992 Hitachi EX100 Excavator (EX100). When Rife pushed the controls of the excavator to drive off an embankment, the EX100 suddenly lurched forward and then abruptly stopped. The sudden stop ejected Rife through the front window of the operator's cab, injuring him.

When the accident occurred, Rife worked for Armand Berube d/b/a Dirty Works, Inc., a grading contractor. In March of 1998, Dirty Works purchased the used EX100 from American Equipment as-is. Berube knew the excavator was a "gray market" machine. Machinery sold on the "gray market" consists of equipment designed, manufactured, and marketed for use in a foreign country, but which is imported into the United States. Hitachi designed and manufactured the EX100 at issue solely for sale and use in Japan according to Japanese specifications that differ significantly from American specifications. Hitachi sold the EX100 in Japan to a Japanese purchaser for use in Japan. The EX100 was never intended for use in the United States.

At the time of the accident, the EX100 had no seat belt. When Hitachi manufactured the EX100, a seat belt was an available option in accordance with the Japanese safety standards.

Rife filed this action against Hitachi and American Equipment alleging (1) negligence; (2) strict liability based on a manufacturing defect; and (3) strict liability based on a failure to warn of the defect. After answering, Hitachi and American Equipment filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted both motions.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

When reviewing the grant of a summary judgment motion, the appellate court applies the same standard which governs the trial court under Rule 56(c), SCRCP: summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. White v. J.M. Brown Amusement Co., 360 S.C. 366, 601 S.E.2d 342 (2004); B & B Liquors, Inc. v. O'Neil, 361 S.C. 267, 603 S.E.2d 629 (Ct.App.2004); Redwend Ltd. P'ship v. Edwards, 354 S.C. 459, 581 S.E.2d 496 (Ct.App.2003). In determining whether any triable issue of fact exists, the evidence and all inferences which can reasonably be drawn therefrom must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Medical Univ. of South Carolina v. Arnaud, 360 S.C. 615, 602 S.E.2d 747 (2004); McNair v. Rainsford, 330 S.C. 332, 499 S.E.2d 488 (Ct.App.1998). If triable issues exist, those issues must go to the jury. Baril v. Aiken Reg'l Med. Ctrs., 352 S.C. 271, 573 S.E.2d 830 (Ct.App.2002); Young v. South Carolina Dep't of Corrections, 333 S.C. 714, 511 S.E.2d 413 (Ct.App.1999).

Summary judgment is appropriate where the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Belton v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., 360 S.C. 575, 602 S.E.2d 389 (2004); McCall v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 359 S.C. 372, 597 S.E.2d 181 (Ct.App.2004); Rule 56(c), SCRCP; see also Higgins v. Medical Univ. of South Carolina, 326 S.C. 592, 486 S.E.2d 269 (Ct.App.1997)

(noting that when ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the trial judge must consider all of the documents and evidence within the record, including pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file, and affidavits). "On appeal from an order granting summary judgment, the appellate court will review all ambiguities, conclusions, and inferences arising in and from the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party below." Ferguson v. Charleston Lincoln Mercury, Inc., 349 S.C. 558, 563, 564 S.E.2d 94, 96 (2002); see also Schmidt v. Courtney, 357 S.C. 310, 592 S.E.2d 326 (Ct.App.2003) (stating that all ambiguities, conclusions, and inferences arising from the evidence must be construed most strongly against the moving party).

Summary judgment is not appropriate where further inquiry into the facts of the case is desirable to clarify the application of the law. Brockbank v. Best Capital Corp., 341 S.C. 372, 534 S.E.2d 688 (2000); Hawkins v. City of Greenville, 358 S.C. 280, 594 S.E.2d 557 (Ct.App.2004). Summary judgment should not be granted even when there is no dispute as to evidentiary facts if there is disagreement concerning the conclusion to be drawn from those facts. Moriarty v. Garden Sanctuary Church of God, 341 S.C. 320, 534 S.E.2d 672 (2000); Ellis v. Davidson, 358 S.C. 509, 595 S.E.2d 817 (Ct.App.2004). However, when plain, palpable, and indisputable facts exist on which reasonable minds cannot differ, summary judgment should be granted. Hedgepath v. American Tel. & Tel. Co., 348 S.C. 340, 559 S.E.2d 327 (Ct.App.2001); Pye v. Aycock, 325 S.C. 426, 480 S.E.2d 455 (Ct.App.1997).

The party seeking summary judgment has the burden of clearly establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. McCall, 359 S.C. at 376, 597 S.E.2d at 183. Once the party moving for summary judgment meets the initial burden of showing an absence of evidentiary support for the opponent's case, the opponent cannot simply rest on mere allegations or denials contained in the pleadings. Regions Bank v. Schmauch, 354 S.C. 648, 582 S.E.2d 432 (Ct.App.2003). Rather, the nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial. Ellis, 358 S.C. at 518-19, 595 S.E.2d at 822; Peterson v. West American Ins. Co., 336 S.C. 89, 518 S.E.2d 608 (Ct.App.1999); Rule 56(c), SCRCP. The purpose of summary judgment is to expedite disposition of cases which do not require the services of a fact finder. Dawkins v. Fields, 354 S.C. 58, 580 S.E.2d 433 (2003); Rumpf v. Massachusetts Mut. Life Ins. Co., 357 S.C. 386, 593 S.E.2d 183 (Ct.App.2004). Because it is a drastic remedy, summary judgment should be cautiously invoked to ensure that a litigant is not improperly deprived of a trial on disputed factual issues. Helena Chem. Co. v. Allianz Underwriters Ins. Co., 357 S.C. 631, 594 S.E.2d 455 (2004); Hawkins, 358 S.C. at 289,594 S.E.2d at 561-62; Murray v. Holnam, Inc., 344 S.C. 129, 542 S.E.2d 743 (Ct.App.2001).

LAW/ANALYSIS
I. Doctrinal Analysis/Products Liability

A products liability case may be brought under several theories, including negligence, strict liability, and warranty. Small v. Pioneer Mach., Inc., 329 S.C. 448, 494 S.E.2d 835 (Ct.App.1997); Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., 319 S.C. 531, 462 S.E.2d 321 (Ct.App.1995). In a products liability action, regardless of the theory on which the plaintiff seeks recovery, he must establish three elements: (1) he was injured by the product; (2) the injury occurred because the product was in a defective condition, unreasonably dangerous to the user; and (3) the product, at the time of the accident, was in essentially the same condition as when it left the hands of the defendant. Small, 329 S.C. at 462-63, 494 S.E.2d at 842; Bragg, 319 S.C. at 539, 462 S.E.2d at 326; see also S.C.Code Ann. 15-73-10(1) (1977) ("One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm caused to the ultimate user or consumer, or to his property...."). Further, liability for negligence requires, in addition to the above, proof that the manufacturer breached its duty to exercise reasonable care to adopt a safe design. Allen v. Long Mfg. NC, Inc., 332 S.C. 422, 505 S.E.2d 354 (Ct.App.1998); Madden v. Cox, 284 S.C. 574, 328 S.E.2d 108 (Ct.App.1985).

Under any products liability theory, a plaintiff must prove the product defect was the proximate cause of the injury sustained. Bray v. Marathon Corp., 356 S.C. 111, 588 S.E.2d 93 (2003); Small, 329 S.C. at 463,494 S.E.2d at 842; see also Livingston v. Noland Corp., 293 S.C. 521, 362 S.E.2d 16 (1987) (finding proximate cause is an element of strict liability claim); Young v. Tide Craft, Inc., 270 S.C. 453, 242 S.E.2d 671 (1978) (holding proximate cause is an essential element common to the alternative theories of negligence, breach of implied warranty, and strict liability in tort); S.C.Code Ann. 36-2-715(2)(b) (2003) (providing that consequential damages resulting from seller's breach include injury to person or property proximately resulting from any breach of warranty).

A plaintiff suing under a products liability cause of action can recover all damages that were proximately caused by the defendant's placing an unreasonably dangerous product into the stream of commerce. Small, 329 S.C. at 464, 494 S.E.2d at 843; Parr v. Gaines, 309 S.C. 477, 424 S.E.2d 515 (Ct.App.1992). Proximate cause requires proof of causation in fact and legal cause. Bray, 356 S.C. at 116-17, 588 S.E.2d at 95; Trivelas v. South Carolina Dep't of Transp., 348 S.C. 125, 558 S.E.2d 271 (Ct.App.2001). Causation in fact is proved by...

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