South Carolina Supreme Court Re-Issues Opinion in which it Reversed $18 Million Products Liability Verdict

We here at Abnormal Use previously reported on that on March 15, 2010 the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed an $18 million jury verdict against 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.E.2d —, 2010 WL 916109 (S.C. Mar. 15, 2010). Yesterday, the South Carolina Supreme Court “reissued” this opinion, substituting the most recent opinion in the place of the one cited above, after considering Plaintiffs’ and Ford’s motions to clarify and Plaintiffs’ motion for rehearing, all of which were filed after the original opinion. Watson v. Ford Motor Co., No. 26786 (S.C. Sept. 13, 2010).

The difference between the two opinions — the March 15, 2010 opinion and the September 13, 2010 opinion — is that the Court considered an additional issue on appeal presented by Ford. After the jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiffs at the trial of this matter, Ford filed post-trial motions, including one for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (“JNOV”). The trial court denied all of Ford’s post-trial motions and on then appeal, it appears that the Court did not consider whether the trial court erred in denying Ford’s JNOV motion. On Plaintiffs’ and Ford’s motions for reconsideration, the South Carolina Supreme Court considered this issue and found that the trial court did err in denying Ford’s JNOV motion.

The September 13, 2010 opinion included its previous analysis of all the issues in the March 15, 2010 opinion that found the trial court erred in qualifying Bill Williams as an expert on cruise control, qualifying Dr. Anderson as an expert on alternative designs, finding that Dr. Anderson’s theory regarding EMI as the cause of the sudden acceleration met the reliability requirements, and admitting evidence of similar incidents involving sudden acceleration in Explorers. In addition to the above, in the re-issued opinion, the Court found that because Plaintiffs’ experts did not present admissible evidence, they “failed to present a case for products liability” because there was no evidence that the cruise control system was defective or unreasonably dangerous. Further, the Court found that Plaintiffs “failed, as a matter of law, to prove an alternative feasible design with respect to the vehicle’s cruise control system” and were entitled to judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The South Carolina Supreme Court therefore found that as a result of all four of the trial court errors, it must reverse the jury’s verdict and enter judgment in favor of Ford.

Justice Costa M. Pleicones, who concurred in a separate opinion in the March 15, 2010 decision, now concurs in part and dissents in part in a separate opinion. Justice Pleicones concurred, as before, with the points made by the majority, merely suggesting that he would have reached the same result by a different route. However, in the September 13, 2010 opinion, Justice Pleicones dissents with the new part of the opinion that finds that Ford was entitled to JNOV, stating that there was evidence in the record to support the trial court’s denial of Ford’s JNOV motion. That evidence consisted of a colloquy between Dr. Anderson and Ford’s counsel in which Dr. Anderson opined that to a reasonable degree of engineering certainty that electrical interference was the cause of the sudden acceleration. Justice Pleicones stated that he would have reversed and remanded.

Finally, as noted by Brain Comer of South Carolina Products Liability Law Blog yesterday, the Court added an additional footnote in its discussion of whether the court erred in admitting Dr. Anderson’s testimony as to both an alternative feasible design and his EMI theory. This footnote cited to the recent opinion in which the Supreme Court adopted the risk-utility test as the exclusive test in products liability design cases — which we discussed here.

What, then, is the significance of this “re-issued” opinion? The prior opinion, as is this one, was instructive on the duties of the trial court as a gatekeeper of the admission of evidence and vividly illustrated how critically important competent expert testimony is to the prosecution of products liability cases. What the most recent opinion adds is that when the appellate court properly strips improper expert testimony from the case, they stand ready to not only remand for a new trial but also outright reverse a trial court’s decision and dismiss it.

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