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Branham v. Ford Motor Co.

    Brief Fact Summary.

    The South Carolina Supreme Court held that the plaintiff in a products liability design defect suit has the burden of proof to show the design of the product in question is unreasonably dangerous.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A plaintiff who brings suit with a products liability design defect cause of action, the plaintiff must bring forth a different design and show that the different design could have prevented the original design from being unreasonably dangerous. 

    Facts.

    Jesse Branham (Plaintiff) and several children were passengers in a 1987 Ford Bronco II driven by Cheryl Hale. None of the passengers in the vehicle were wearing a seat belt. While driving, Hale began to veer of the side of the road. Noticing her change of course, she over-corrected by turning the vehicle in the opposite direction to the left. Shortly after, the vehicle began to shake and was overturned. Branham was ejected from the vehicle and suffered injuries. Branham then brought a negligence claim against Hale and brought a products liability design defect suit against the manufacturer of the car, Ford Motor Company. The plaintiff provided evidence that Ford decided saving money was more important than exploring some safety concerns regarding their vehicles. The jury ultimately found both defendants to be negligent awarded actual damages in the amoung of $16 million and punitive damages in the amount of $15 million. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Ford’s appeal. 

    Issue.

    In a products liability design defect suit, does the plaintiff have to offer an alternative design to the product in question and prove the alternative design may have prevented the original product from being “unreasonably dangerous?” 

    Held.

    Yes. In a products liability defect case, the plaintiff must prove the design of the original product affected the safety of the product rendering it “unreasonably dangerous.” Courts use one of two tests in order to determine if a product is “unreasonably dangerous.” The first test known as the consumer expectations test, looks at “whether the product is unreasonably dangerous to the consumer or user given the conditions and circumstances that foreseeably attend use of the product.” In short, is the product unreasonably dangerous for ordinary use or any foreseeable use of the product by the user. The second test, known as the risk-utility test looks at a variety of factors which include the cost involved for added safety, the potential for serious injury, the blatancy of danger, and the usefulness or desirability of the product. The court determined that in order to determine whether the tests are satisfied is a question for the jury. The Plaintiff provided evidence which showed an alternative design regarding the suspension of the vehicle which may have prevented the car from rolling over. The Plaintiff also provided evidence showing there would not be a significant increase in cost for the modifications to the product. 

    Discussion.

    The court determined the risk-utility test to be a better test for a products liability design defect case. Not only does the plaintiff have to present an alternative design, but the plaintiff must show the variety of factors described above. 


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