South Carolina Supreme Court Reverses $18 Million Products Liability Verdict

As we briefly reported yesterday, the South Carolina Supreme Court yesterday reversed an $18 million jury verdict against the Ford Motor Company, finding that the trial court erred in admitting the testimony of two of the plaintiffs’ experts and admitting evidence of prior sudden acceleration accidents. Watson v. Ford Motor Co., No. 26786 (S.C. March 15, 2010). This case is very instructive on the duties of the trial court as a gatekeeper of the admission of evidence and vividly illustrates how plaintiffs may not simply rest on the mere fact that an accident happened in attempting to hold a defendant liable.

The case involves the sudden acceleration of a vehicle, making it a very timely topic. On December 11, 1999, Sonya L. Watson was driving her 1995 Ford Explorer with Patricia Carter and two other passengers in the vehicle when she lost control, veered off the interstate, and rolled four times. Carter did not survive the accident and Watson was rendered a quadriplegic. Watson and Carter filed a products liability action against Ford, claiming that the accident occurred because the cruise control system was defective, and that their injuries were enhanced because the seat belts were defective.

At trial (which was conducted in Greenville County, SC), the Plaintiffs presented (and the trial court allowed) three types of evidence that was the subject of Ford’s appeal. First, the Plaintiffs presented testimony of Dr. Antony Anderson, an electrical engineer from the United Kingdom. He opined that electromagnetic interference (“EMI“) took hold of the vehicle’s cruise control system, causing it to suddenly accelerate. Dr. Anderson further testified that Ford could have prevented the accident through an alternative design. Second, the Plaintiffs presented the testimony of Bill Williams, a purported automotive industry veteran, as an expert on cruise control diagnosis. Finally, the Plaintiffs offered evidence of similar accidents involving sudden acceleration in Ford Explorers.

The jury determined that Ford was liable to Plaintiffs on their claim that the Explorer’s cruise control was defective and awarded Watson $15 million in compensatory damages and the Estate of Carter $3 million in compensatory damages. Thereafter, Ford appealed, asserting the trial court erred in “. . . qualifying Bill Williams as an expert in cruise control systems[,] allowing Dr. Anderson’s testimony regarding EMI and alternative feasible design[, and] allowing evidence of other incidents of sudden acceleration in Explorers.”

Yesterday, on those grounds, the Supreme Court granted Ford’s appeal. In an opinion authored by Chief Justice Jean Toal, the South Carolina Supreme Court agreed with Ford and found that the trial court committed prejudicial error in allowing evidence at trial that did not meet the threshold admissibility requirements in South Carolina. It should be noted that South Carolina has not adopted the Daubert test and instead follows its own test set forth in State v. Council, 335 S.C. 1, 20, 515 S.E.2d 515, 518 (1999) and its progeny. Under that test, South Carolina courts have generally been fairly liberal in qualifying experts to testify at trial, and motions to exclude brought under State v. Council are not often granted.

The Court set forth the three preliminary findings that all trial courts must make in South Carolina before a jury may consider expert testimony: (1) the subject matter is beyond the ordinary knowledge of the jury, (2) the expert has the requisite knowledge and skill to qualify as an expert in the particular subject matter, and (3) the substance of the testimony is reliable.

The Court first found that there was “no evidence to support the trial court’s qualification of [Bill] Williams as a expert in cruise control systems” because Williams had no professional experience working on cruise control systems prior to litigation, had not conducted any comparison of the Explorer’s cruise control system to any other system, and had not taught or published papers on cruise control systems.

Next, the Court found that the “trial court erred in admitting Dr. Anderson’s testimony as to both an alternative feasible design and his EMI theory.” In so doing, the Court stated that Dr. Anderson was not qualified to testify on that subject matter because “[h]e had no experience in the automobile industry, never studied a cruise control system, and never designed any component of a cruise control system.” Further, the Court found his testimony unreliable because he provided no support for his conclusion that an alternative design would have cured the alleged defect. With respect to Dr. Anderson’s EMI theory, the Court rejected his testimony because his theory had not been peer reviewed, his theory had not been tested, Dr. Anderson stated he could not replicate the alleged EMI or tell where it originated or what parts it affected.

Finally, the Court found that the Plaintiffs had failed to show that the incidents of sudden acceleration presented were similar to the incident at issue: the Explorers were made in different years and were different models. Further, the Court found that the Plaintiffs failed to “show a similarity of causation between the malfunction in this case and the malfunction in the other incidents.”

Since the only evidence that the Plaintiffs presented to prove that the Explorer was defective was Dr. Anderson’s testimony, the Court ruled that the trial court committed prejudicial error by admitting his testimony. Further, the Court found it highly prejudicial that the Plaintiffs were allowed to present evidence of other incidents when they had not established a factual foundation to show substantial similarity. As a result, the Court reversed the jury’s verdict against Ford.

Justice Costa M. Pleicones concurred in the result only, agreeing with many of the points made by the majority but suggesting that he would have reached the same result by a different route.

(See here for some additional coverage on this matter from the Overlawyered blog and here for a brief report from Point of Law.)
(Disclosure: Gallivan, White & Boyd, P.A. was involved in the trial of this case. It represented the seat-belt supplier, a defendant that was found not liable by the jury. That said, we should also state that prior results do not constitute representations concerning potential results in other matters, the results of any case depends on the factual and legal circumstances of each, and nothing herein is intended to create any expectations of a result on the part of the reader.)

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