Sunday, September 16, 2012
Victim Of Circumstance?: Is Circumstantial Evidence Sufficient To Survive Summary Judgment In Products Liability Case?
The Supreme Court of South Carolina recently issued an interesting opinion in Graves v. CAS Medical Systems, Inc., 2012 WL 3793263 (S.C. 2012), an opinion that may very well have been shaped by an amicus curiae brief submitted by several law professors. In Graves, the circuit court had found that a plaintiff in a design defect case cannot survive a motion for summary judgment through soleley circumstantial evidence. So, what did the South Carolina Supremes find?
In Graves, India Graves died from SIDS during the early morning hours of Sunday, April 11, 2004. At the time of her death, India was attached to a CAS, AMI Plus ("AMI") infant breathing and heart rate monitor. India's parents, Kareem and Tara Graves, subsequently filed a products liability lawsuit against CAS, contending the monitor was defectively designed and failed to alert them when India's heart rate and breathing slowed. The circuit court granted CAS's motion to exclude all of the Graves' expert witnesses and granted CAS' motion for summary judgment, finding that the Graves could not prove their case solely through circumstantial evidence. These circumstantial evidence included evidene of 50 alarm failure reported to CAS and the FDA, with the circuit court finding that "the substantial similarity of the complaints to the alleged failure in this case [was] never shown."
This led to the law professors' amicus brief [Download Brief of Amicus Curiae (Clocked)], submitted by John F. Vargo, Richard W. Wright, Paul J. Zwier II, Frank J. Vandall, Stephen A. Saltzburg, Jay M. Feinman, Thomas A. Eaton, and Carl T. Bogus. The brief's argument was that a plaintiff in a products liability case should certainly be able to survive a motion for summary judgement solely through presenting circumstantial evidence because (1) circumstantial evidence is just as good as direct evidence; (2) South Carolina courts in every other type of case allow plaintiffs to survive motions for summary judgment through circumstantial evidence; and (3) 47 other states allow for plaintiffs in products liability cases to survive motions for summary judgment through circumstantial evidence.
To prove this last point, the authors include a 50 state survey in an appendix. In that survey, the authors noted that the only two states that have not yet found that circumstantial evidence is sufficient -- Alaska and Maine -- have not yet been confronted with the issue.
So, that takes us to the opinion of the Supreme Court of South Carolina in Graves. Here is the court ostensibly responding to the amicus brief:
We take this opportunity to correct the circuit court's erroneous holding that a plaintiff cannot use circumstantial evidence to prove a design defect claim. "Any fact in issue may be proved by circumstantial evidence as well as direct evidence, and circumstantial evidence is just as good as direct evidence if it is equally as convincing to the trier of the facts." St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Am. Ins. Co., 251 S.C. 56, 59–60, 159 S.E.2d 921, 923 (1968). Thus, the general rule is any fact can be shown through circumstantial evidence, and it is up to the trier of fact to determine whether it alone is worth as much merit as direct evidence. Although CAS argues we foreclosed the use of circumstantial evidence for design defects in Branham, we recognized in that very case that other similar incidents can be used to show a design defect, which is classic circumstantial proof. See 390 S.C. at 230, 701 S.E.2d at 20.
But how much circumstantial evidence is needed? According to the court,
In this case,...we need not determine what quantum of circumstantial evidence of a design defect is necessary to withstand summary judgment because the lack of expert testimony is nevertheless dispositive of the Graves' claim.
This was because
It is well-established that one cannot draw an inference of a defect from the mere fact a product failed. Sunvillas Homeowners Ass'n v. Square D Co., 301 S.C. 330, 333, 391 S.E.2d 868, 870 (Ct.App.1990). Accordingly, the plaintiff must offer some evidence beyond the product's failure itself to prove that it is unreasonably dangerous. Thus, while the Graves do have witnesses who testified that the alarm did not sound, that alone is not sufficient. In some design defect cases, expert testimony is required to make this showing because the claims are too complex to be within the ken of the ordinary lay juror.
The court then found that the case before it was a sufficiently complex case requiring expert testimony:
We have little trouble concluding as a matter of law that the Graves' claim is one such case because it involves complex issues of computer science. Although we use computers in some form or fashion almost every day of our lives, the design and structure of the software they run is beyond the ordinary understanding and experience of laymen. Hence, the Graves must support their allegations with expert testimony, and without it, their claims are subject to dismissal. Because we find the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the Graves' computer experts, CAS is entitled to summary judgment.