South Carolina Supreme Court Answers Certified Questions in Federal Product Liability Case Arising from Gas Tank Fire

Product liability claims can involve multiple theories of liability by the plaintiff – and also a variety of possible defenses by the manufacturer, wholesaler, or seller against which the plaintiff’s claims are made.

Recently, the state’s highest court was asked by a federal district court to answer certain certified questions of state law in a product liability lawsuit filed by a victim of a fiery crash in Greenville County, South Carolina, that occurred in November 2012.

Facts of the Case

In a case recently decided by the South Carolina Supreme Court, the plaintiff was a man who was severely burned after his truck allegedly burst into flames after being struck by another vehicle towing a horse trailer. The plaintiff’s friend, who was driving the plaintiff’s truck at the time of the crash and was likely to be found at fault in the wreck, died in the accident. Both the plaintiff and his friend were alleged to have smoked synthetic marijuana on the day of the accident.

The plaintiff filed a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer of the truck, alleging that the truck (a 1987 Chevrolet pickup truck) was not crashworthy. More specifically, the plaintiff claimed that the defendant’s placement of the gas tank outside the truck’s frame caused the fire. He sought monetary compensation for his burn injuries (but not the fractures to his rib and hip bones caused by the initial impact of the crash).

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff should be barred from recovery based on South Carolina’s public policy against driving while impaired. Alternatively, the defendant asserted that the doctrine of comparative negligence should be applied to limit the plaintiff’s recovery, should his product liability claim prevail. Before ruling on the defendant’s motion, the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina certified two questions to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Opinion of the Supreme Court of South Carolina

The state supreme court answered both certified questions in the negative. With regard to the doctrine of comparative negligence, the court found that it was inapplicable in a strict liability/breach of warranty case arising from a vehicle’s alleged lack of crashworthiness, at least when the plaintiff sought only damages related to his or her enhanced injuries. The court then held that the state’s public policy against impaired driving was not a bar to a plaintiff’s recovery in a strict liability/breach of warranty case seeking payment for enhanced injuries due to a vehicle’s lack of crashworthiness.

In so holding, the court treated the deceased driver’s negligence as if it would be imputed to the plaintiff based on their “joint enterprise to smoke marijuana and drive while under the influence,” but it noted that this factual issue was outside the scope of the questions certified to the court.

Seek Legal Assistance with a South Carolina Product Liability Claim

Dangerous and defective products cause serious injuries and fatalities with alarming regularity. If you or a loved one has been hurt due to a faulty product, the experienced South Carolina product liability attorneys at the Patrick E. Knie Law Offices can help. For a free consultation at our Spartanburg or Greenville law offices, call us now at 864-582-5118.

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