Riley v. Ford Motor Co. – South Carolina Supreme Court Weighs Defective Auto Parts Case

The death of Jasper County Sheriff Benjamin Riley in an August 2007 traffic crash was a devastating blow not only to his wife and daughters, but also to his department, his church and his greater community.
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A 16-year-old driver had negligently entered his lane, forcing him to swerve. He still struck the teen’s car, though experts would later opine it wasn’t an especially high-impact collision. However, a defect in the door latch of his pickup truck caused the door to swing open, and Riley was ejected. He died soon thereafter.

His widow later sued the teen driver, as well as the manufacturer of decedent’s truck. The teen later settled with plaintiffs for a total of $25,000 – the liability limits under his insurance policy. Meanwhile, the case of Riley v. Ford Motor Co. proceeded to trial.

Plaintiffs alleged that while the teen was responsible for the crash, decedent would have survived – and probably with relatively few injuries – if he hadn’t been ejected from the vehicle due to the faulty latch. There was some dispute about whether decedent had been wearing his seat belt, but family and colleagues testified he always wore it – even when off-duty.

Jurors returned a verdict favoring plaintiffs for $300,000. But after hearing a swell of testimony from family members friends, fellow parishioners, fellow sheriff’s office employees and more, trial court granted a motion for nisi additur of $600,000. That is, defense was required to pay an additional $600,000, for a total verdict of $900,000. It’s a rare move, but it can happen in cases where the compensation for damages is deemed “grossly inadequate” in light of one’s injuries or losses.

Here, trial judge was quoted during the proceedings as saying despite his long career, he couldn’t remember a single case – either as a lawyer or judge – where so much glowing, genuine testimony was offered about a person. He called it, “very touching, to be quite frank with you.”

It was in light of this evidence the judge found the $300,000 verdict to be inadequate.

On appeal, the South Carolina Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that merely disagreeing with a jury’s damage award isn’t grounds enough to significantly alter it.

But then the South Carolina Supreme Court again reversed, reinstating the findings of the trial court. In reviewing the case, the state supreme court noted the veteran trial judge gave uncontested and emotionally compelling evidence that supported the losses suffered by decedent’s family. That included the economic as well as the noneconomic losses. Although the judge didn’t find the jury’s verdict was so shockingly inadequate as to warrant a new trial, he correctly applied the law and extensive evidence to the proper elements of damages in this wrongful death case. Thus, the state supreme court ruled, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting the nisi additur.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Riley v. Ford Motor Co., Sept. 30, 2015, South Carolina Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Clifton v. McCammack – Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress in Crash Cases, Oct. 12, 2015, Spartanburg Auto Accident Attorney Blog

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