Personal responsibility and product liability collided in a South Carolina Supreme Court opinion that bars automakers from raising the defense of comparative negligence in crashworthiness suits.
The state’s highest court held on May 17 that General Motors could not use the defense to reduce its damages in a federal suit over a fatal crash involving a Chevrolet pickup equipped with notorious side-saddle gas tanks that have a history of exploding and burning occupants alive.
GM wanted to argue that Reid Donze was comparatively negligent in the crash because he and his friend Allen Brazell were allegedly high on synthetic marijuana when Brazzell drove through a stop sign in a 1987 Chevy C10. A seven-ton Ford F-350 truck towing a horse trailer smashed into Donze’s pickup, which burst into flame.
Brazzell died — his family also has a suit pending against GM —- but bystanders were able to save Donze. He sustained severe burns to 80 percent of his body and has medical bills that have snowballed to $11 million and counting, according to his attorney, Ronnie Crosby of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick in Hampton.
Donze, who’d let Brazzell drive his truck before the crash, argued that his Chevy was defective because GM placed the fuel tanks outside the protective frame of the vehicle, which made the tanks more likely to rupture and ignite in a side-impact crash.
More than 100 deaths have been blamed on side-saddle tanks in Chevy trucks made between 1972 and 1987. The trucks were the subject of a federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation that led to an initial safety-defect finding. But the finding was vacated and an impending government recall was called off after GM, which denied any wrongdoing, paid a $51.3 million settlement in the mid-1990s.
In his suit, Donze asserted that comparative negligence was an invalid defense because he was seeking damages for the “enhanced injuries” (i.e., severe burns) that he sustained as a result of his truck’s defective gas tanks, but not for the broken rib and fractured hip bone that resulted from the initial collision.
“When people say, ‘Shouldn’t a driver’s fault be considered?’ I say, ‘The safety devices on your vehicle don’t know who’s at fault in a crash,’” Crosby said. “I always ask people to think if this was their teenager who ran off the road and hit a tree and the airbag didn’t go off.”
‘Disturbing and illogical results’
GM moved to dismiss Donze’s suit based on South Carolina’s public policy against driving while impaired and raised an alternative argument that Donze’s damages should be limited based on comparative negligence. In denying the motion, U.S. District Judge Timothy Cain of Anderson asked the state Supreme Court to determine whether GM’s public policy and comparative negligence defenses were valid.
Of the 22 states that have considered the question, 16 have allowed the comparative fault defense while six have not. The Palmetto State makes seven.
Justice Kaye Hearn, who wrote the unanimous opinion in Donze, noted that many of the states on the majority side of the issue have a statutory mandate to apply comparative negligence to crashworthiness cases based on theories of strict liability and breach of warranty, unlike South Carolina.
Hearn determined that “the doctrine of crashworthiness itself divides and allocates fault to a manufacturer for damages it alone caused, so it would be incongruous to allow comparative negligence to apply to further reduce the manufacturer’s liability or shift that responsibility to another party.”
She added that if the General Assembly had intended to allow comparative negligence as a defense in crashworthiness suits it would have done so. She took a similar position in rejecting GM’s public policy argument, writing that her 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.”
Attempts to speak with GM’s attorneys were unsuccessful. The company contended in its brief that Donze was pushing the court to “adopt a rule that would allow negligent and impaired drivers to escape civil responsibility for injuries they cause to themselves.”
GM added that a decision in Donze’s favor “would have profound consequences far beyond crashworthiness cases. And many of those consequences are patently absurd and unacceptable.”
GM suggested that under Donze’s argument a drunken driver who killed a child could escape civil liability and be acquitted of criminal charges by successfully asserting that a defective airbag was to blame for the death.
“Disturbing and illogical results like these would necessarily follow from adopting plaintiff’s theory, which asks this court to adopt a special standard for proximate causation applicable only to plaintiff’s fault and only in cases alleging crashworthiness claims,” GM’s attorneys wrote.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents the companies that make nearly 80 percent of all the new cars and trucks sold in the United States, including GM, also urged the Supreme Court to reject Donze’s argument.
“Failure to do so will create a particularly high risk of unwarranted liability exposure in cases assessing the crashworthiness of automobiles,” the Auto Alliance’s attorneys wrote in an amicus brief. “In many such situations, a plaintiff’s own negligence in causing the collision may be a significant contributor of his or her injuries.”
Concerns about interpretation
Justice John Kittredge wrote a concurring opinion to caution the lower courts from reading the majority’s decision too broadly.
“My concern here is that today’s apparent categorical rule may be applied to preclude a manufacturer from asserting a valid defense, which in my judgment would implicate due process considerations,” he said.
Kittredge stressed that the decision should be limited to “true crashworthiness cases where it is established as a matter of law that the plaintiff’s comparative fault was not a proximate cause of the ‘enhanced injuries.’”
Crosby, Donze’s attorney, said Kittredge’s concurrence was perplexing because GM is free to argue at trial that Brazell’s impairment constituted product misuse. Donze initially testified in a deposition that he and Brazell smoked synthetic marijuana the morning of the incident. But he later recanted and said he couldn’t remember what happened that day.
“The decision doesn’t take away product misuse,” Crosby said. “They’d still be able to get that in.”
The 16-page decision is Donze v. General Motors, LLC (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-031-17). An opinion digest is available at sclawyersweekly.com.
Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz