COLUMBIA, S.C. (Legal Newsline) - The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled this week that a couple, left severely injured after an accident stemming from a damaged traffic signal, is entitled to a combined jury verdict of $1.2 million.
The Court, in its Monday opinion, affirmed in part and reversed in part the decision of the Spartanburg County Circuit Court.
The couple, Larry Lee and Jeannie Boiter, was injured when the motorcycle they were riding collided with a car driven by Nancy Kochenower at an intersection near Inman, S.C. The lightbulbs in the red signal on the road that Kochenower was traveling had burned out earlier that day.
The Boiters suffered significant injuries as a result of being thrown from the motorcycle, requiring lengthy hospital stays and incurring $888,756 in medical bills and $203,897 in lost wages. They settled with Kochenower for her policy limits of $50,000.
The couple also filed four separate lawsuits against the South Carolina Department of Transportation and the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, alleging negligence in their failure to prevent the accident.
With respect to SCDOT, the Boiters alleged it failed to implement an appropriate re-lamping policy to replace bulbs in traffic signals before they burn out. As for SCDPS, the Boiters alleged that a citizen's call one hour and twenty-seven minutes prior to the accident reporting the outage should have resulted in it notifying a trooper to report to the scene and direct traffic.
At trial, the jury found in favor of the Boiters and awarded each of them a total of $1.875 million.
Thereafter, SCDOT and SCDPS filed motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, a new trial, and to reduce the verdict amount pursuant to the Tort Claims Act.
In response, the Boiters filed a motion challenging the constitutionality of the two-tier cap in the Tort Claims Act and asserted that the agencies' negligence constituted two separate occurrences under the act.
The circuit court denied the agencies' motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a new trial, as well as the Boiters' motion challenging the cap's constitutionality. However, the court found there was only one occurrence and granted the agencies' motion to reduce the verdict pursuant to the act. The Boiters' verdict was reduced to $300,000 each, for a total of $600,000.
The couple appealed the state's high court. Justice Kaye G. Hearn wrote the Court's opinion.
In its ruling, the Court said it was not persuaded that the General Assembly's two-tier classification was "arbitrary" or "without rational basis." The cap on damages, it said, is constitutional against an equal protection challenge.
However, the Court agreed with the Boiters that the circuit court erred in failing to find two separate occurrences in the two separate acts of negligence committed by SCDOT and SCDPS.
"Respondents cite to language found in section 15-78-120(2), arguing that it demonstrates the General Assembly's recognition that the number of governmental entities involved in a particular occurrence does not increase the statutory limits on liability. While we do not disagree with Respondents' view, we do not believe this ends the inquiry," it wrote.
"In many situations, negligent acts from more than one entity would still equal but one occurrence. However, under these facts, there were two separate entities which committed two separate and independent acts of negligence, and we do not believe the General Assembly's intent was to limit recovery in such situations based on there being only one occurrence.
"Accordingly, we hold each Respondent's act of negligence was a separate occurrence entitling the Boiters to a combined verdict of $1.2 million, and we reverse the circuit court."
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.