South Carolina Supreme Court Reinstates $900,000 Award of Damages Against Truck Manufacturer – Riley v. Ford Motor Company

It is unsettlingly common these days to hear of a large recall of cars, trucks, or SUVs, often as part of a settlement agreement between the manufacturer of the vehicles and the federal government as a result of findings that certain product defects have resulted in numerous injuries and deaths.

Recalls, unfortunately, do little if anything to compensate those whose lives have been shattered by defective or dangerous products. To do that, the injured party or the family of a deceased consumer must file a product liability lawsuit against the maker, wholesaler, or retail seller of the vehicle. Unfortunately, such cases may take years to reach trial and even longer to make their way through the appellate process.

Facts of the Case

In the case of Riley v. Ford Motor Company, the plaintiff was the personal representative of the estate of a man who was killed in a 2007 traffic accident in which the door of his 1998 Ford F-150 pickup truck came open, causing him to be ejected from his vehicle.  The personal representative filed suit against the other driver who was involved in the accident and the manufacturer of the Ford truck.

After settling the claim against the other driver, the personal representative proceeded to a jury trial, during which she asserted that the manufacturer was liable for the decedent’s wrongful death because it had defectively designed the door-latch system in the truck, such that it opened on impact.

The case was tried before a jury, which returned a verdict of $300,000 in compensatory damages. Although the jury found clear and convincing evidence that the manufacturer’s conduct was willful, wanton, or reckless, it did not award punitive damages.

Post-Trial Proceedings

The trial court granted a nisi additur of $600,000. The intermediate appellate court affirmed the trial court’s order with regard to liability, but it reversed the nisi additur and also found error with regard to the allocation and setoff of certain settlement proceeds.

On further appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court, the court reversed the court of appeals and reinstated the trial court’s judgment, including the nisi additur. The court found that the trial court had shown an appropriate exercise of discretion with regard to the nisi additur, considering that the personal representative had presented expert testimony regarding at least $228,000 in economic losses to the decedent’s family, as well as considerable testimony regarding noneconomic damages.

The court noted that the lower appellate court had committed an error of law in holding that a nisi additur was inappropriate when any amount of noneconomic damages is awarded and that the lower appellate court had also erred in its reallocation and setoff of the settlement proceeds.

The manufacturer was entitled only to a setoff of $5,000, the amount allocated by the personal representative and the other driver for the settlement of the wrongful death claim. The $20,000 allocated to the survival action should not have been included. (At trial, the personal representative’s claim against the manufacturer was for wrongful death only and did not include a survival action.)

To Speak to an Experienced South Carolina Product Liability Lawyer

Dangerous and defective products are all around us, from the cars we drive to the medications we take to the toys we give our children. If you or a family member has been hurt by a dangerous product, call the Law Offices of Patrick E. Knie at 864-582-5118 and put our team of knowledgeable Spartanburg product liability attorneys to work on your case. We serve all of South Carolina and have offices in both Greenville and Spartanburg.

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