South Carolina Plant Employee Was “User” of Product for Sodium Bromate for Purposes of Strict Product Liability Analysis – Lawing v. Univar, USA, Inc.

Product liability cases can involve many different theories of liability. Typically, the issues in the case are narrowed during the litigation process, with only some claims actually being tried. It is therefore crucially important for a trial court to properly instruct the jury on the issues presented at trial.

In the recent case of Lawing v. Univar, USA, Inc., the plaintiff worked as a maintenance mechanic at a plant that produced a precious metal catalyst used in the automobile industry and refined metals from recycled materials. The mechanic’s employer purchased sodium bromate, an oxidizer needed in the refining process, from the defendant manufacturer (who sourced the product from another defendant, who obtained it from a facility in China through its subsidiary, also a defendant in the case).

In June 2004, a fire broke out in the plant, injuring the plaintiff. He brought a product liability lawsuit against the defendants, claiming that their packaging and labeling of the sodium bromate contributed to the fire. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants on the plaintiff’s strict liability claim, but the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s decision.

The South Carolina Supreme Court’s Opinion

On further appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court, the court affirmed in part and reversed in part. According to the court, there were two issues presented in the appeal. First, was the plaintiff a “user” of the product for the purposes of South Carolina Code § 15-73-10, and, second, was it proper for the trial court to charge the jury on the “sophisticated user” defense?

Section 15-73-10 provides that those who sell a product in a defective condition may be held liable to the user or consumer of such a product. The plaintiff noticed the product within his work area on the day of the fire, but he failed to request that it be removed because he did not see a label that indicated that it was dangerous. The court held that that this was a crucial fact in determining that the plaintiff was, in fact, a “user” of the product, even though he did not actually handle it.

However, the court went on to find that the court of appeals had set forth too broad of a definition of “user” for the purposes of a strict liability analysis in South Carolina and modified the definition inasmuch as it applied a foreseeability analysis that could potentially include bystanders. Instead, a case-by-case analysis was held to be more appropriate in determining “users” under the statute.

With regard to the plaintiff’s assertion that the court of appeals erred in affirming the trial court’s jury instructions on the sophisticated user defense, the court agreed that the trial court’s instructions were an abuse of discretion. Under the facts of the case, the proper focus was on the labeling of the product, not the use of the product. The real issue was the visibility of the labels indicating the danger of the product, not the plant’s previous experience with the product.

The court therefore remanded the plaintiff’s negligence and implied warranty of merchantability claims for a new trial consistent with the court’s opinion.

For Advice Concerning Your Case

If you have been hurt by a dangerous or defective product, contact South Carolina product liability attorney Patrick E. Knie at (864) 582-5118 to find out more about your legal rights. We have offices in Spartanburg and Greenville, and we represent clients throughout the state of South Carolina.

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