Justia South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure

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The federal district court for the District of South Carolina certified a question of law to the South Carolina Supreme Court. The Supreme Court was asked to construe section 38-77-350(C) of the South Carolina Code (2015) and determine whether, under the facts presented, an insurance company was required to make a new offer of underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage when an additional named insured is added to an existing policy. In 2012, Wayne Reeves acquired an insurance policy from Progressive Direct Insurance Company (Progressive) covering his motorcycle. When the policy was issued, Wayne declined optional UIM coverage. In 2015, Wayne's wife (Jennifer) and son (Bryan) were added to the policy as "drivers and household residents," because they also drove motorcycles. In 2017, Bryan sold his motorcycle and purchased another motorcycle, a 2016 Harley Davidson, which was added to the policy. At the time, Wayne had Bryan added as named insured to the policy. Progressive did not offer Bryan any optional coverages. Later in 2017, Bryan was involved in an accident while driving his 2016 Harley Davidson. Bryan ultimately made a claim against Progressive to reform the policy to include UIM coverage based on Progressive's failure to offer him the optional coverage. Progressive contended that adding Bryan as a named insured was a change to an existing policy, and as a result, Progressive was not required to offer Bryan UIM coverage. Based on the undisputed facts, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The Supreme Court concluded under South Carolina law, Progressive was not required to make an additional offer of UIM coverage to Bryan. View "Progressive Direct v. Reeves" on Justia Law

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Johnny Tucker injured his shoulder on May 2, 2011, while working at the South Carolina Department of Transportation. The commission found he "sustained 5% permanent partial disability . . . for which he is entitled to fifteen weeks of compensation." On May 2, 2013, Tucker filed a Form 50 asserting a claim for additional benefits on the basis that his condition caused by the 2011 injury had changed. Tucker checked the box on line 13a of the Form 50 indicating, "I am not requesting a hearing at this time." On July 30, 2014, Tucker filed another Form 50. This second Form 50 was identical to the first except this time he checked the box on line 13b indicating, "I am requesting a hearing." Petitioners, the Department of Transportation and the State Accident Fund, defended the claim on the basis that Tucker did not comply with the timing requirement of subsection 42-17-90(A). The subsection provided that when a party makes a claim based on a change of condition, "the review must not be made after twelve months from the date of the last payment of compensation pursuant to an award." Tucker received his last payment of compensation on November 28, 2012. The first Form 50 was filed within twelve months, but Tucker's request for a hearing in the second Form 50 did not occur within twelve months. The South Carolina Supreme Court rejected Petitioners' argument that satisfying this timing requirement was dependent on a claimant requesting a hearing within the time period set forth in South Carolina Code subsection 42-17-90(A) (2015). Rather, the Court held the timing requirement is satisfied upon the filing of a Form 50 to initiate the claim. View "Tucker v. SCDOT" on Justia Law

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Daufuskie Island Utility Company, Inc. (DIUC) filed an application with the Public Service Commission for a rate increase for the water and sewer service it provides to residents of Daufuskie Island in Beaufort County. During a hearing on the merits of the application, the commission approved a purported settlement agreement between the Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) and three property owners' associations: Haig Point Club and Community Association Inc., Melrose Property Owner's Association, Inc., and Bloody Point Property Owner's Association. DIUC appealed, and the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed, finding the agreement "was not a true settlement" because DIUC did not agree to it. The case was thereafter remanded the case to the commission for a new hearing on all issues. On remand, the commission held a second hearing on the merits and issued a second order. DIUC appealed the second order, arguing the commission erred in disallowing certain rate case expenses and refusing to include items of capital in DIUC's rate base. DIUC argued ORS and the commission applied a higher standard of scrutiny on remand in retaliation against DIUC for successfully seeking reversal of the commission's initial order. At oral argument on this second appeal, when pressed by the Court to respond to DIUC's "retaliation" argument, appellate counsel for ORS conceded a heightened standard had been employed. In reversing the Commission, the Supreme Court determined the arbitrary, higher standard of scrutiny affected substantial rights of DIUC. The commission's findings of fact and conclusions of law therefore had to be reversed. The matter was remanded again for a new hearing. View "Daufuskie Island v. SC Office of Regulatory Staff" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals certified two questions of law to the South Carolina Supreme Court. John Wickersham, Jr. was seriously injured in an automobile accident. After months of severe pain from the injuries he received in the accident, he committed suicide. His widow filed lawsuits for wrongful death, survival, and loss of consortium against Ford Motor Company in state circuit court. She alleged that defects in the airbag system in Mr. Wickersham's Ford Escape enhanced his injuries, increasing the severity of his pain, which in turn proximately caused his suicide. She included causes of action for negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty. Ford removed the cases to the federal district court, then moved for summary judgment in the wrongful death suit, arguing Mrs. Wickersham had no wrongful death claim under South Carolina law because Mr. Wickersham's suicide was an intervening act that could not be proximately caused by a defective airbag. The district court denied Ford's motion, ruling Mrs. Wickersham could prevail on the wrongful death claim if she proved the enhanced injuries Mr. Wickersham sustained in the accident as a result of the defective airbag caused severe pain that led to an "uncontrollable impulse" to commit suicide. Ford renewed the motion during and after trial, but the district court denied both motions. In returning a verdict for Mrs. Wickersham, the jury found the airbag was defective and proximately caused Mr. Wickersham's enhanced injuries and suicide. However, the jury also found Mr. Wickersham's actions in being out of position enhanced his injuries, and found his share of the fault was thirty percent. The district court entered judgment for Mrs. Wickersham, but denied Ford's request to reduce the damages based on Mr. Wickersham's fault. Ford filed motions to alter or amend the judgment, for judgment as a matter of law, and for a new trial, all of which the district court denied. Responding to the two questions certified by the federal appellate court, the South Carolina Supreme Court held traditional principles of proximate cause governed whether a personal representative has a valid claim for wrongful death from suicide, and whether a person's own actions that enhance his injuries, as opposed to those that cause the accident itself, should be compared to the tortious conduct of a defendant in determining liability. View "Wickersham v. Ford Motor Co" on Justia Law

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In 2013, a bus driven by Defendant Asia Partman struck Respondent Andrew Neumayer while he was a pedestrian in Cayce, South Carolina. EMS transported Neumayer to Lexington Medical Center where he was diagnosed with a ruptured spleen, broken left ribs, left humerus fracture, left pneumothorax, and a punctured lung. After eight days in the hospital and medical costs of approximately $122,000, Neumayer was released. Partman worked for Defendant Primary Colors Child Care Center, and in November of 2013, Neumayer filed a lawsuit against both defendants, alleging negligence against Partman and Primary Colors. The defendants did not answer or respond in any fashion, and after a default judgment was entered, the court held a damages hearing, where it awarded Neumayer $622,500. Over eighteen months after the entry of default, Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Co. (Philadelphia), Primary Colors' insurance carrier, received notice that its insured was involved in a lawsuit that culminated in a default judgment. While the record was unclear as to why it took eighteen months to notify Philadelphia, it ultimately received notice when Neumayer's counsel faxed documents seeking to collect $622,500. Philadelphia declined to pay that amount, instead asserting its indemnification obligation was limited to $25,000 because South Carolina jurisprudence required an insurer to pay only the minimum limits when it was substantially prejudiced by its insured's failure to provide notice of a lawsuit. Further, Philadelphia contended the failure to receive notice of the underlying lawsuit prevented an opportunity to investigate and defend. Neumayer filed this declaratory judgment action asking the court to require Philadelphia to pay the judgment in full. At issue before the South Carolina Supreme Court was whether notice clauses in automobile insurance policies were rendered meaningless by Section 38-77-142(C) of the South Carolina Code (2015) . The trial court found the clause in this policy void and accordingly required the insurance company to pay the full default judgment entered against its insured. The insurer appealed. The Supreme Court determined the circuit court erred in ruling that section 38-77-142(C) invalidated the standard notice clause contained in this insurance policy. “An insurer may continue to invoke notice clauses to deny coverage above the statutory limits, providing the insurer can prove that it was substantially prejudiced by its insured's failure to comply with the provision.” View "Neumayer v. Philadelphia Indemnity" on Justia Law

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Petitioners Dr. John Roberts and the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) sought a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision in Johnson v. Roberts, 812 S.E.2d 207 (Ct. App. 2018). Respondent Clair Johnson filed a medical malpractice action alleging Roberts and MUSC negligently treated Johnson with electroconvulsive therapy. Roberts and MUSC moved for summary judgment, contending the six-year statute of repose barred her claims, and the circuit court agreed, holding the repose period began on the first date of treatment. On appeal, the court of appeals reversed, relying on its decision in Marshall v. Dodds, 789 S.E.2d 88 (Ct. App. 2016), to hold that there was evidence to support Johnson's claim that Roberts and MUSC acted negligently within six years of filing her lawsuit. The South Carolina Supreme Court recently affirmed as modified the court of appeals' Marshall decision, holding the statute of repose began to run after each occurrence. In this case, Roberts and MUSC contended the court of appeals erred in finding Johnson's claims preserved for review and in holding the statute of repose began after each occurrence. The Supreme Court disagreed and affirmed. View "Johnson v. Roberts" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit certified a question of South Carolina law to the South Carolina Supreme Court. The underlying case was an insurance bad faith action against an insurance company for its failure to defend its insured in a construction defect action. The insured settled the construction defect action and brought a bad faith tort action. When the insurer asserted it acted in good faith in denying coverage, the insured sought to discover the reasons why the insurer denied coverage. According to the insurer, the discovery requests included communications protected by the attorney-client relationship. The federal district court reviewed the parties' respective positions, determined the insured had established a prima facie case of bad faith, and ordered the questioned documents to be submitted to the court for an in camera inspection. The insurer then sought a writ of mandamus from the Fourth Circuit to vacate the district court's order regarding the discovery dispute. In turn, the Fourth Circuit asked the South Carolina Supreme Court whether state law supported the application of the "at issue" exception to attorney-client privilege such that a party may waive the privilege by denying liability in its answer. The South Carolina Supreme Court found that the parties, especially the insured, contended the certified question did not accurately represent the correct posture of the case. In fact, the insured conceded the narrow question presented required an answer in the negative. The Supreme Court agreed, finding “little authority for the untenable proposition that the mere denial of liability in a pleading constitutes a waiver of the attorney-client privilege.” The Court elected to analyze the issue narrowly in the limited context of a bad faith action against an insurer, and felt constrained to answer the certified question as follows: "No, denying liability and/or asserting good faith in the answer does not, standing alone, place the privileged communications 'at issue' in the case." View "Mt. Hawley Insurance Company v. Contravest Construction" on Justia Law

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In October of 2007, Petitioner Otha Delaney bought a 2003 Chevrolet pick-up truck from Coliseum Motors pursuant to a retail installment sales contract. The dealership subsequently assigned the contract to Respondent First Financial of Charleston, Inc., which acquired a security interest under the UCC. After Delaney failed to make payments, First Financial lawfully repossessed the truck, and on May 2, 2008, it sent Delaney a letter entitled, "Notice of Private Sale of Collateral." Over seven months later, on December 15, 2008, First Financial sold the truck. On October 3, 2011, more than three years after sending notice but less than three years from the sale of the truck, Delaney filed suit against First Financial, seeking to represent a class of individuals who had received notice that allegedly failed to comply with certain requirements in Article 9. After a hearing, the trial court found: (1) the remedy Delaney sought pursuant to section 36-9-625(c)(2) South Carolina Code (2003) was a statutory penalty; (2) the six-year Article 2 limitations period did not apply because Delaney failed to plead breach of contract, the claim solely concerned deficient notice under Article 9, and even if Article 2 applied, the more specific limitations period on penalties governed; and (3) under either limitation period, Delaney's claim was time-barred as his action accrued upon receipt of the allegedly deficient notice. To this last point, the South Carolina Supreme Court determined the trial court erred, holding the notice of disposition of collateral did not accrue until First Financial disposed of the collateral. Accordingly, because Delaney filed this action within three years from that date, the matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Delaney v. First Financial" on Justia Law

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The parties, Stone and Thompson, met in 1983 and began a romantic relationship. Thompson was married to another man at the time and obtained a divorce in 1987. Later that year, Stone and Thompson had their first child. After Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston, South Carolina in 1989, the parties had their second child and started living together. They continued to live, raise their children, and manage rental properties together for approximately 20 years, but ultimately ended their relationship after Thompson discovered Stone was having an affair with a woman in Costa Rica. In 2012, Stone filed an amended complaint in family court alleging, inter alia, he was entitled to a declaratory judgment that the parties were common-law married, a divorce, and an equitable distribution of alleged marital property. Thompson contended the parties were not common-law married, asserted several counterclaims, and sought dismissal of the case. If the trial court would not dismiss the case, Thompson sought to bifurcate the issues to first determine whether the parties were common-law married. After a hearing, the family court denied Thompson's motion to dismiss but granted her motion to bifurcate, ordering a trial on the sole issue of whether a common-law marriage existed between the parties. The court reasoned that, should it determine no marriage existed, it would not need to address the other issues in the case. The issue this appeal presented for the South Carolina Supreme Court’s review was whether the trial court order finding a common-law marriage, was immediately appealable under the general appealability statute, S.C. Code Ann. 14-3-330. The court of appeals held the order was interlocutory because it did not end the case, and further, that it was not immediately appealable under the statute. The Supreme Court concluded that because the order involved the merits of the causes of action, it reversed. View "Stone v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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Pamela Russell injured her back in 2009 while working at a Wal-Mart store in Conway, South Carolina. The worker’s compensation commission found Russell suffered a 7% permanent partial disability, and awarded her twenty-one weeks of temporary total disability compensation. In 2011, Russell requested review of her award, claiming there had been a "change of condition caused by the original injury" pursuant to subsection 42-17-90(A) of the South Carolina Code (2015). An appellate panel of the commission remanded Russell's change of condition claim to a single commissioner for what was a third ruling on the same claim. Russell appealed the remand order to the court of appeals, which dismissed the appeal on the ground the order was not a final decision, and thus not immediately appealable. The South Carolina Supreme Court found the remand order was immediately appealable because the commission's unwarranted delay in making a final decision required immediate review to avoid leaving Russell with no adequate remedy on an appeal from a final decision. The Court reversed the court of appeals' order dismissing the appeal, reversed the appellate panel's remand order, and remanded to any appellate panel of the commission for an immediate and final review of the original commissioner's decision. View "Russell v. Wal-Mart" on Justia Law