Justia South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Consumer Law
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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit certified a question of law to the South Carolina Supreme Court. John Harley 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 United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. Ford then filed a motion for summary judgment in the wrongful death suit, arguing Mrs. Wickersham has 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. 194 F. Supp. 3d at 448. The court ruled 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. A jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of Mrs. Wickersham on all claims. Ford appealed, and the Fourth Circuit asked: (1) whether South Carolina recognized an "uncontrollable impulse" exception to the general rule that suicide breaks the causal chain for wrongful death claims; and (2) did comparative negligence in causing enhanced injuries apply in a crashworthiness case when the plaintiff alleges claims of strict liability and breach of warranty and is seeking damages related only to the plaintiff's enhanced injuries? The Supreme Court responded that (1) South Carolina did not recognize a general rule that suicide was an intervening act which breaks the chain of causation and categorically precludes recovery in wrongful death actions. "Rather, our courts have applied traditional principles of proximate cause to individual factual situations when considering whether a personal representative has a valid claim for wrongful death from suicide." With respect to the federal court's second question, the Supreme Court held a plaintiff's actions that do not cause an accident but are nevertheless a contributing cause to the enhancement of his injuries, are not necessarily a legally remote cause. "Mr. Wickersham's non-tortious actions that were not misuse are not relevant to Ford's liability for enhancement of his injuries in terms of the defense of comparative negligence or fault." View "Wickersham v. Ford Motor Company" 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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This appeal arose out of a $17 million verdict rendered in favor of Francis Maybank for claims sounding in contract, tort, and the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act (UTPA). Maybank brought this action alleging he received faulty investment advice from Branch Banking and Trust (BB&T - the Bank) through BB&T Wealth Management (Wealth Management) and BB&T Asset Management (Asset Management), all operating under the corporate umbrella of BB&T Corporation (collectively, Appellants). Appellants appealed on numerous grounds, and Maybank appealed the trial court's denial of prejudgment interest. After review, the Supreme Court reversed as to an award of punitive damages based on a limitation of liability clause. The Court affirmed on all other grounds. View "Maybank v. BB&T" on Justia Law

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Julie Freeman, individually and on behalf of over five-thousand similarly situated car buyers, filed a lawsuit against J.L.H. Investments, LP, a/k/a Hendrick Honda of Easley ("Hendrick"), seeking damages under the South Carolina Dealers Act on the ground that Hendrick "unfairly" and "arbitrarily" charged all of its customers "closing fees" that were not calculated to reimburse Hendrick for actual closing costs. A jury returned a verdict in favor of Freeman in the amount of $1,445,786.00 actual damages. In post-trial rulings, the trial judge: (1) denied Hendrick's motions to overturn or reduce the jury's verdict; (2) granted Freeman's motions to double the actual damages award and to award attorneys' fees and costs; and (3) denied Freeman's motion for prejudgment interest. The South Carolina Supreme Court certified this case from the Court of Appeals, and finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Freeman v. J.L.H. Investments" on Justia Law

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Latoya Brown purchased a Mazda 6 from Dick Smith Nissan, Inc. through the dealer's salesman, Robert Hiller. The purchase was contingent on acquiring third-party financing. Due to continuing and unresolved issues with financing, Brown returned the vehicle to Dick Smith. The car was later repossessed and sold by Sovereign Bank with a deficiency against Brown. Brown filed a complaint against Dick Smith and Old Republic Surety Company, the surety on Dick Smith's licensing bond, alleging violations of the South Carolina Dealers Act. The trial judge, in a bench trial, found in favor of Brown and awarded damages plus interest as well as attorney's fees and costs. Dick Smith and Old Republic appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that any misconceptions that Brown had about her financing were caused by Sovereign Bank, not Dick Smith. Despite evidence in the record to support the trial judge's findings of fact, the Court of Appeals ignored those findings and substituted its own. By doing so, the Court of Appeals exceeded its standard of review. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the trial judge's decision. View "Brown v. Dick Smith Nissan" on Justia Law

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Donald Austin filed suit against Stokes-Craven, an automobile dealership, after he experienced problems with his used vehicle and discovered the vehicle had sustained extensive damage prior to the sale. The resolution of this case involved an interpretation of a narrow portion of the Supreme Court’s opinion in “Austin v. Stokes-Craven Holding Corp.,” (691 S.E.2d 135 (2010)). Specifically, the consolidated appeals were the result of a dispute over the Court's holding concerning Austin's entitlement to trial fees under the South Carolina Regulation of Manufacturers, Distributors, and Dealers Act and whether the Supreme Court's denial of Austin's motion for appellate costs under Rule 222 of the South Carolina Appellate Court Rules had preclusive effect on his right to pursue appellate and post-appellate fees under the Dealer's Act. After careful review of the appellate record in this case, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial judge's award of trial fees to Austin and remanded this case to the circuit court to conduct a hearing to determine what amount of appellate and post-appellate fees should be awarded to Austin. View "Austin v. Stokes-Craven Holding" on Justia Law

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In a matter of first impression, the Supreme Court was asked to determine if an unsuccessful party in an arbitration proceeding could prevent the confirmation of an award by paying the award prior to the confirmation proceeding. Diane Henderson filed an action against Summerville Ford-Mercury, Inc. alleging the dealer made misrepresentations to her when she purchased a used vehicle. The circuit court granted the dealer's motion to compel arbitration, and an arbitrator found for Henderson on her claims for violation of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act and the South Carolina Regulation of Manufacturers, Distributors, and Dealers Act. Henderson moved to confirm the arbitration award, which was granted by the circuit court. The dealer appealed, arguing the circuit court erred: (1) in rejecting its assertion that payment of the award mooted the request for confirmation, leaving no "justiciable controversy"; and alternatively (2) in applying the provision for confirming awards contained in the South Carolina Uniform Arbitration Act ("UAA"), rather than the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA"). Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded the unsuccessful party could not prevent confirmation of the award by paying it before confirmation. View "Henderson v. Summerville Ford-Mercury" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented to the Supreme Court started from an agreement between Respondents, the University of South Carolina and the University Gamecock Club, and Appellant George M. Lee, III. In exchange for Appellant purchasing a $100,000 life insurance policy and naming the University the sole, irrevocable beneficiary of the policy, Appellant was given the "opportunity to purchase tickets" for his lifetime to University football and basketball games. Years later, the University instituted a program that required all Gamecock Club members, including Appellant, to pay a seat license fee as a prerequisite for purchasing season tickets. Believing that the University could not require him to pay additional consideration for the opportunity to purchase tickets without violating the agreement, Appellant brought a declaratory judgment action. The trial court entered judgment for the University and the Gamecock Club, finding that Appellant was not deprived of the opportunity to purchase season tickets when the University instituted the seat license fees. The Supreme Court reversed: the Agreement unambiguously prohibited the University from requiring Lee to pay the seat license fee as a prerequisite for the opportunity to purchase tickets pursuant to the Agreement. View "Lee v. University of South Carolina" on Justia Law

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In anticipation of the opening of the University of South Carolina's new basketball arena, the University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina Gamecock Club distributed a brochure to high-level Gamecock Club members. The brochure offered the opportunity to purchase premium seating including a number of amenities for basketball games and other events held at the arena. The brochure offered members the opportunity to purchase these tickets over a "five year term." Members were to pay $5,000 per seat in the first year and $1,500 per seat each year in years two through five. Appellants claimed that Athletic Department employees promised Appellants that, after year five, they would only have to maintain their Gamecock Club membership and pay the face value of season tickets to retain these premium seats. Appellants accepted the University's offer and made the required payments for years one through five. After the fifth year, the University contacted Appellants and requested a $1,500 payment per seat for the sixth year of premium seating. Appellants brought an action against the University alleging breach of contract and seeking specific performance. After discovery, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The trial judge denied Appellants' motion and granted the University's motion, finding that due to the absence of a written contract the statute of frauds barred Appellants' claims. The Supreme Court concluded the statute of frauds applied in the first instance, but that a question of fact existed concerning the question of equitable estoppel, rendering summary judgment inappropriate. View "Springob v. University of South Carolina " on Justia Law

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Appellants Thomas and Vera Gladden appealed the trial court's order granting summary judgment to Respondent Palmetto Home Inspection Services, alleging the limit of liability provision in a home inspection contract was unenforceable as violative of public policy and as unconscionable under the facts of this case. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that contractual limitation of a home inspector's liability did not violate South Carolina public policy as expressed by the General Assembly and, as a matter of law, was not so oppressive that no reasonable person would make it and no fair and honest person would accept it. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court's order granting summary judgment to the inspector. View "Gladden v. Palmetto Home Inspections" on Justia Law