The Lawletter Vol 42 No 10
Can a plaintiff motorist's comparative fault be considered in crashworthiness cases based on strict liability or breach of warranty? That was the issue of first impression for the South Carolina Supreme Court in Donze v. General Motors, LLC, 420 S.C. 8, 800 S.E.2d 479 (2017). In Donze, the plaintiff passenger had been smoking synthetic marijuana earlier in the day. He sustained severe burn injuries when the truck in which he was riding burst into flames after colliding with another vehicle at a controlled intersection. The accident occurred because the truck driver failed to stop and pulled directly in front of the other vehicle.
The plaintiff brought a crashworthiness case against the truck's manufacturer, alleging that the truck's design was defective because the gas tank was placed outside of the truck's frame. Two issues were certified to the Donze court:
- Does comparative negligence in causing an accident apply in a crashworthiness case when the plaintiff alleges claims of strict liability and breach of warranty and is seeking damages related only to the plaintiff's enhanced injuries?
- Does South Carolina's public policy bar impaired drivers from recovering damages in a crashworthiness case when the plaintiff alleges claims of strict liability and breach of warranty?
Id. at 11, 800 S.E.2d at 480.
For purposes of its analysis, the court treated the truck driver's negligence as that of the plaintiff passenger, who owned the truck. Id. at 10 n.1, 800 S.E.2d at 480 n.1. The court observed that a majority of other states permit a comparative- fault analysis to reduce a plaintiff's recovery in crashworthiness cases. However, the Donze court decided to adopt the minority view, as outlined in two prior cases: Andrews v. Harley Davidson, Inc., 106 Nev. 533, 537, 796 P.2d 1092, 1095 (1990), and Jimenez v. Chrysler Corp., 74 F. Supp. 2d 548 (D.S.C. 1999).
The court noted that South Carolina has no statutory mandate to apply comparative negligence in crashworthiness cases based on strict liability or breach of warranty. In addition, the court stated that the underlying premise of the crashworthiness doctrine—that manufacturers are only liable for enhanced damages caused by a design defect when the defect does not cause the initial collision—is already taken into account through the concept of enhanced injuries. Donze, 420 S.C. at 19, 800 S.E.2d at 485. The court held that "comparative negligence does not apply to permit the negligence of another partyCwhether the plaintiff or another defendantCin causing an initial collision to reduce the liability of a manufacturer for enhanced injuries in a crashworthiness case." Id. at 20, 800 S.E.2d at 485.
The court rejected the manufacturer's argument that the plaintiff's comparative fault should be considered because South Carolina's statutory and case law establish a strong public policy against impaired driving. The court observed that strict liability and breach of warranty are statutory causes of action, and held that only the legislature could adopt an exception to those causes of action. Id. at 22, 800 S.E.2d at 486. The court concluded by stating as follows:
[T]he General Assembly is both capable of and willing to create statutory consequences for drug and alcohol abuse when it sees fit. This Court has repeatedly declined to create or expand public policies which the General Assembly could have adopted had it chosen to do so, and we decline to deviate from that practice now. . . . Moreover, this Court has emphasized its preference for exercising “restraint when undertaking the amorphous inquiry of what constitutes public policy” based upon our understanding that the General Assembly is the principal source of public policy declarations.
Id. at 23, 800 S.E.2d at 487 (citations omitted).