Justia Injury Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in South Carolina Supreme Court
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Hystron Fibers, Inc. hired Daniel Construction Company in 1965 to build a polyester fiber plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina. When the plant began operating in 1967, Hystron retained Daniel to provide all maintenance and repair workers at the plant. Hystron soon became Hoechst Fibers, Inc. Pursuant to a series of written contracts, Hoechst paid Daniel an annual fee and reimbursed Daniel for certain costs. The contracts required Daniel to purchase workers' compensation insurance for the workers and required Hoechst to reimburse Daniel for the workers' compensation insurance premiums. Dennis Seay was employed by Daniel. Seay worked various maintenance and repair positions at the Hoechst plant from 1971 until 1980. The manufacture of polyester fibers required the piping of very hot liquid polyester through asbestos-insulated pipes. He eventually developed lung problems, which were later diagnosed as mesothelioma, a cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. Seay and his wife filed this lawsuit against CNA Holdings (Hoechst's corporate successor) claiming Hoechst acted negligently in using asbestos and in failing to warn of its dangers. After Seay died from mesothelioma, his daughter, Angie Keene, took over the lawsuit as personal representative of his estate. Throughout the litigation, CNA Holdings argued Seay was a statutory employee and the Workers' Compensation Law provided the exclusive remedy for his claims. The circuit court disagreed and denied CNA Holdings' motion for summary judgment. A jury awarded Seay's estate $14 million in actual damages and $2 million in punitive damages. The trial court denied CNA Holdings' motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, again finding Seay was not a statutory employee. The South Carolina Supreme Court found the circuit court and the court of appeals correctly determined the injured worker in this case was not the statutory employee of the defendant. View "Keene v, CNA Holdings, LLC" on Justia Law

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On November 5, 2010, James Nix poured kerosene from a gasoline can onto a burn pile in his yard. The kerosene ignited, and the flame entered the gas can through its unguarded pour spout. The gas can exploded and sprayed kerosene and fire onto Nix's five-year-old son Jacob, who was standing only a few yards away. Jacob suffered severe burn injuries to over 50% of his skin and was permanently scarred. Blitz U.S.A., Inc. manufactured the gas can. Blitz distributed the gas can involved in Jacob's injury through Fred's, a retail store chain headquartered in Tennessee. Fred's sold the gas can to a consumer at its store in the town of Varnville, in Hampton County, South Carolina. The explosion and fire that burned Jacob occurred at Nix's home in Hampton County, South Carolina. In 2013, Jacob's aunt Alice Hazel, his legal guardian, and Jacob's mother Melinda Cook, filed separate but almost identical lawsuits in state court in Hampton County seeking damages for Jacob's injuries. Both plaintiffs asserted claims against Blitz on strict liability, breach of warranty, and negligence theories. Both plaintiffs asserted claims against Fred's for strict liability and breach of warranty based on the sale of the allegedly defective gas can. Both plaintiffs also asserted a claim against Fred's on a negligence theory based only on Fred's negligence, not based on the negligence of Blitz. This is the claim important to this appeal, referred to as "Hazel's claim." Petitioner Fred's Stores of Tennessee, Inc. contended the circuit court erred by refusing to enjoin these lawsuits under the terms of a bankruptcy court order and injunction entered in the bankruptcy proceedings of Blitz U.S.A., Inc. The South Carolina Supreme Court found the circuit court correctly determined the bankruptcy court's order and injunction did not protect Fred's from these lawsuits. The matter was remanded back to the circuit court for discovery and trial. View "Hazel v. Blitz U.S.A., Inc." on Justia Law

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Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company ("Nationwide") relied on flight-from-law enforcement and felony step-down provisions in an automobile liability insurance policy to limit its coverage to the statutory mandatory minimum. Following a bench trial and after issuance of the South Carolina Supreme Court's opinion in Williams v. Government Employees Insurance Co. (GEICO), 409 S.C. 586 (2014), the circuit court held the step-down provisions were void pursuant to Section 38-77-142(C) of the South Carolina Code (2015). The court of appeals reversed. Three individuals, Sharmin Walls, Randi Harper, and Christopher Timms, were passengers in a vehicle driven by Korey Mayfield that crashed in 2008 following a high-speed chase by law enforcement. Mayfield refused to pull over, and during the chase, the trooper's vehicle reached speeds of 109 miles per hour. All the passengers begged Mayfield to stop the car, but Mayfield refused. Eventually, the trooper received instructions to terminate the pursuit, which he did. Nevertheless, Mayfield continued speeding and lost control of the vehicle. Timms died in the single-car accident, and Walls, Harper, and Mayfield sustained serious injuries. After being charged with reckless homicide, Mayfield entered an Alford plea. At the time of the accident, Walls' automobile was insured through her Nationwide policy, which included bodily injury and property damage liability coverage with limits of $100,000 per person and $300,000 per occurrence. Walls also maintained uninsured motorist (UM) coverage for the same limits, but she did not have underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage. In reliance on the aforementioned provisions, Nationwide paid only $50,000 in total to the injured passengers (the statutory minimum as provided by law) rather than the liability limits stated in the policy. Safe Auto, Mayfield's insurance company, also paid a total of $50,000 to the passengers. Nationwide brought this declaratory judgment action requesting the court declare that the passengers were not entitled to combined coverage of more than $50,000 for any claims arising from the accident. Walls answered, denying there was any evidence that the flight-from-law enforcement and felony provisions applied. The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals, holding that section 38-77-142(C) rendered Nationwide's attempt to limit the contracted-for liability insurance to the mandatory minimum void. View "Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co. v. Walls" on Justia Law

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This appeal concerned the enforceability of an arbitration agreement executed between Ashley River Plantation, an assisted-living facility, and Thayer Arredondo, the attorney-in-fact under two powers of attorney executed by Hubert Whaley, a facility resident. When Whaley was admitted into the facility, Arredondo held two valid powers of attorney, a General Durable Power of Attorney (GDPOA) and a Health Care Power of Attorney (HCPOA). Arredondo met with a facility representative and signed various documents in connection with Whaley's admission. During that meeting, the facility representative did not mention or present an arbitration agreement to Arredondo. Later that day, after Whaley was admitted, Arredondo met with a different facility representative who, according to Arredondo, told her she "needed to sign additional documents related to [her] father's admission to the facility." Included among those documents was the arbitration agreement, which Arredondo signed. The arbitration agreement contained a mutual waiver of the right to a trial by judge or jury, and required arbitration of all claims involving potential damages exceeding $25,000. The agreement barred either party from appealing the arbitrators' decision, prohibited an award of punitive damages, limited discovery, and provided Respondents the unilateral right to amend the agreement. Two years into his stay at the facility, Whaley was admitted to the hospital, where he died six years later. Arredondo, as Personal Representative of Whaley's estate, brought this action alleging claims for wrongful death and survival against Respondents. The complaint alleged that during his residency at the facility, Whaley suffered serious physical injuries and died as a result of Respondents' negligence and recklessness. In an unpublished opinion, the court of appeals held the arbitration agreement was enforceable. The South Carolina Supreme Court held neither power of attorney gave Arredondo the authority to sign the arbitration agreement. Therefore, the court of appeals was reversed. View "Arredondo v. SNH SE Ashley River Tenant, LLC" on Justia 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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The South Carolina Supreme Court granted Scott Ledford’s petition for review of the Court of Appeals’ decision to affirm the outcome of a Workers’ Compensation Commission hearing. Ledford was a former lance corporal with the South Carolina Highway Patrol. While employed as a highway patrolman, Ledford was injured in two separate work-related accidents: in July 2010, Ledford sustained injuries to his spine after being tasered during a training exercise; and in March 2012, Ledford was involved in a motorcycle accident while attempting to pursue a motorist. Ledford settled the 2010 claim with Respondents. Following the second accident, Ledford filed two separate claims for workers' compensation benefits. The Workers' Compensation Commission Appellate Panel declined to find Ledford suffered a change of condition; however, she found Ledford was entitled to medical benefits for injuries to his right leg and aggravated pre-existing conditions in his neck and lower back due to the motorcycle accident. Neither party appealed the Commission’s order. Months later, Ledford reached maximum medical improvement ("MMI"). Commissioner Susan Barden held a hearing on Ledford’s Form 21 in August 2014. Following the hearing, but prior to the issuance of a final order, Ledford filed a motion to recuse Commissioner Barden. According to Ledford's motion, Commissioner Barden requested a phone conference with the parties a month after the hearing during which she allegedly threatened criminal proceedings against Ledford if the case was not settled; indicated that she engaged in her own investigation and made findings based on undisclosed materials outside the record; suggested Ledford used "creative accounting" in his tax returns; and questioned Ledford's credibility regarding his claims of neck pain. Ledford contended any one of these grounds was sufficient to warrant recusal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission, finding: (1) Commissioner Barden was not required to recuse herself; (2) substantial evidence supported the Appellate Panel's decision to reverse Commissioner Barden's permanency determination; and (3) substantial evidence supported the Appellate Panel's findings that Ledford was not credible and his landscaping business remained lucrative following the injury. The Supreme Court held the Court of Appeals erred in finding Commissioner Barden was not required to recuse herself. The Court was “deeply concerned” by the Commissioner’s conduct in this matter. “Ledford's counsel provided an opportunity for Commissioner Barden to right her wrong by moving for recusal. Instead of stepping aside, Commissioner Barden became more abusive and strident in both her ruling on the recusal motion and her final order.” The Commission’s orders were vacated and the matter remanded for a new hearing before a different commissioner. View "Ledford v. DPS" on Justia Law

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Wadette Cothran incurred approximately $40,000 in medical expenses from injuries she received in an automobile accident. Her employer's workers' compensation carrier paid all of her medical expenses. She was also covered by her automobile insurance policy issued to her and her husband Chris by State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company. The State Farm policy provided PIP coverage with a limit of $5,000. However, State Farm refused to pay her any PIP benefits for medical expenses based on a "Workers' Compensation Coordination" provision in the policy. This appeal requires presented for the South Carolina Supreme Court's consideration whether Section 38-77-144 of the South Carolina Code (2015) prohibited an automobile insurance carrier from reducing its obligation to pay PIP benefits to its insured by the amount of workers' compensation benefits the insured received for medical expenses. The Court held that it did: "[w]hen an insurer seeks to reduce its obligation to pay benefits based on a third party's previous payment for the same claim, it is a setoff. Because that is the precise effect of State Farm's "Coordination" provision, section 38-77-144 prohibits the provision from reducing State Farm's obligation to pay PIP benefits to the Cothrans." the Court reversed the court of appeals and reinstated the summary judgment in the Cothrans' favor. View "Cothran v. State Farm" on Justia Law

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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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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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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