Clark v. Cantrell

Decision Date13 March 2000
Docket NumberNo. 25088.,25088.
Citation339 S.C. 369,529 S.E.2d 528
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesJohn Kevin CLARK and Maggie Lee Anderson, Respondents, v. Annette Rochelle CANTRELL, Petitioner.

Jack D. Griffeth and Scott Boatwright of Love, Thornton, Arnold & Thomason, P.A., of Greenville, for petitioner.

J. David Standeffer and James Brislane of Standeffer, Brislane & Griffith; and Raymond Allen Tate, Jr. of Doyle & O'Rourke, all of Anderson, for respondents.

WALLER, Justice:

John Kevin Clark and Maggie Lee Anderson sued Annette Rochelle Cantrell for injuries and damages they incurred as a result of an automobile accident. A jury awarded actual and punitive damages to Clark and Anderson.1 The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdicts and awards. Clark v. Cantrell, 332 S.C. 433, 504 S.E.2d 605 (Ct.App.1998). We granted Cantrell's petition for a writ of certiorari to review that decision. We affirm as modified.

FACTS

Shortly after dark on November 1, 1993, Cantrell, driving a late-model Mustang GT with hazard lights flashing, sped down Highway 24 toward Anderson. The driver of a pickup truck that Cantrell passed on a two-lane stretch of road estimated Cantrell was traveling 75 to 80 mph, and she nearly collided with the pickup truck while swerving back into the right lane. The pickup driver believed the Mustang, which continued to pass other vehicles in a similarly hazardous manner, had to be headed for the hospital.

Some distance down the highway, Anderson and a friend were headed to Georgia to buy tickets in the new lottery. Anderson, a nursing assistant at the local hospital, intended to gas up her 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass and was waiting to turn left into a Hess service station.

Cantrell sped through an intersection a short distance from the Hess station, entering a busy stretch of four-lane highway flanked by restaurants and other retail businesses. The speeding Mustang scared a man whose wife, accompanied by their three boys, was taking him to his night-shift textile job. The man estimated the Mustang was traveling 75 to 100 mph.

Anderson waited for a car or two to go by, then began turning left across two lanes of traffic. The front of her car was at the entrance of the service station lot when Anderson glimpsed a small "turbo car" speeding toward her. The textile worker, still watching Cantrell's speeding car from the nearby intersection, saw it strike the right rear side of Anderson's Oldsmobile. The impact flung Anderson's friend, David James, from the car, killing him.

A state Highway Patrol trooper who reconstructed the accident scene pegged the Mustang's speed at 67 to 71 mph when Cantrell first applied her brakes. An accident reconstruction expert hired by Cantrell estimated her car was traveling 57 mph. The posted speed limit was 35 mph. The trooper and Cantrell's expert testified that, if she had been traveling 35 mph, the accident probably would not have occurred. Cantrell's expert also testified that he believed the primary cause of the accident was Anderson's decision to turn left in front of Cantrell's oncoming car.

When Cantrell emerged from her car, she was upset and screaming about the condition of her car, demanding that bystanders look at what had happened to it. She laughed as a trooper talked to her a short while later, although her laughter ended when she was informed someone had died in the accident. Cantrell told a trooper the next day that she was speeding because her car was low on gas and she was in a hurry to reach a station.

Anderson and Clark alleged that Cantrell had caused their injuries and damages by speeding on the busy highway. Cantrell's primary defense was that Anderson caused the accident by turning left in front of her. The jury found Anderson sixteen percent at fault and Cantrell eighty-four percent at fault in the accident. The jury awarded Anderson $75,000 in actual damages and $25,000 in punitive damages; and Clark, the vehicle's owner, $3,000 in actual damages and $750 in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the actual damages, but not the punitive damages, by the proportion of Anderson's fault.

ISSUES
1. Did the Court of Appeals err in holding that punitive damages are not reduced by the proportion of the plaintiff's negligence under comparative negligence?
2. Did the Court of Appeals err in affirming the trial judge's refusal to admit Cantrell's computer-generated video animation of the accident as demonstrative evidence?
3. Did the Court of Appeals err in affirming the trial judge's refusal to give Cantrell's requested charge regarding excessive speed?
4. Did the Court of Appeals err in affirming the trial judge's refusal to instruct the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine?
DISCUSSION
1. PUNITIVE DAMAGES

Cantrell contends the Court of Appeals erred in holding that punitive damages, unlike actual damages, are not reduced by the proportion of the plaintiff's negligence under comparative negligence. Cantrell argues punitive damages should be reduced proportionately because such damages serve, in part, a compensatory role. She relies on several cases decided before the adoption of comparative negligence in 1991. Further, Cantrell asserts that reducing punitive damages is consistent with the adoption of comparative negligence because it focuses on both parties' degree of fault in causing an accident. We disagree.

We are free to decide this novel question of law with no particular deference to the lower court. See S.C. Const. art. V, §§ 5 and 9; S.C.Code Ann. §§ 14-3-320 and -330 (1976 & Supp.1999); S.C.Code Ann. § 14-8-200 (Supp.1999) (granting Supreme Court and Court of Appeals the jurisdiction to correct errors of law in both law and equity actions); I'On v. Town of Mt. Pleasant, 338 S.C. 406, 526 S.E.2d 716 (2000).

Comparative negligence is the law in South Carolina. Nelson v. Concrete Supply Co., 303 S.C. 243, 399 S.E.2d 783 (1991). The jury must apportion fault between the plaintiff and defendant in a negligence action. The plaintiff may recover damages when his or her negligence is not greater than that of the defendant. The plaintiffs damages, however, are reduced in proportion to the amount of his or her negligence. Id. The parties agree that Nelson requires the reduction of plaintiffs actual damages. The novel issue presented in this case is whether the court must reduce punitive damages won by the plaintiff in proportion to the amount of his or her negligence.

The purpose of actual or compensatory damages is to compensate a party for injuries suffered or losses sustained. The goal is to restore the injured party, as nearly as possible through the payment of money, to the same position he or she was in before the wrongful injury occurred. Barnwell v. Barber-Colman Co., 301 S.C. 534, 537, 393 S.E.2d 162, 163 (1989); Laird v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 243 S.C. 388, 396, 134 S.E.2d 206, 210 (1964); Carrigg v. Blue, 283 S.C. 494, 499, 323 S.E.2d 787, 790 (Ct.App.1984); F.P. Hubbard & R.L. Felix, The South Carolina Law of Torts 535-36 (1997).

The purposes of punitive damages are to punish the wrongdoer and deter the wrongdoer and others from engaging in similar reckless, willful, wanton, or malicious conduct in the future. Barnwell, supra.

Punitive damages also serve to vindicate a private right of the injured party by requiring the wrongdoer to pay money to the injured party. Harris v. Burnside, 261 S.C. 190, 196, 199 S.E.2d 65, 68 (1973); Hubbard & Felix, supra, at 581-93. This Court has explained the important role that punitive damages play in the American system of justice generally, and in South Carolina in particular since at least 1784.

Exemplary or punitive damages go to the plaintiff, not as a fine or penalty for a public wrong, but in vindication of a private right which has been willfully invaded; and indeed, it may be said that such damages in a measure compensate or satisfy for the willfulness with which the private right was invaded, but, in addition thereto, operating as a deterring punishment to the wrongdoer, and as a warning to others.... Punitive damages have now come, however, to be generally, though not universally, regarded, not only as punishment for wrong, but as vindication of private right. This is the basis upon which they are now placed in this state.

Rogers v. Florence Printing Co., 233 S.C. 567, 573, 106 S.E.2d 258, 261 (1958) (citations omitted); accord Hicks v. Herring, 246 S.C. 429, 437-38, 144 S.E.2d 151, 155 (1965)

; Mock v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 227 S.C. 245, 267, 87 S.E.2d 830, 840 (1955); Davenport v. Woodside Cotton Mills Co., 225 S.C. 52, 60, 80 S.E.2d 740, 743 (1954); Watts v. Railroad Co., 60 S.C. 67, 73, 38 S.E. 240, 242 (1901).

Cases mentioning the compensatory aspect of punitive damages provide little support for Cantrell's position. All merely illustrate the obvious truth that punitive damages serve at least three important purposes: punishment of the defendant's reckless, willful, wanton, or malicious conduct; deterrence of similar future conduct by the defendant or others; and compensation for the reckless or willful invasion of the plaintiff's private rights. While there is a compensatory aspect to punitive damages, we find unpersuasive Cantrell's attempt to blur all distinctions between actual and punitive damages by unduly emphasizing that compensatory aspect.

We affirm the Court of Appeals' holding on this issue for four related reasons. First, allowing the defendant to shift a portion of the cost of a punitive award back to the plaintiff through comparative negligence would reduce the punishment and deterrent effect of the award. The defendant's punishment would be lessened simply because the plaintiff was somewhat negligent. That is illogical and violates the underlying rationale of punitive damages.

As the Court of Appeals explained in this case, the overwhelming majority of other jurisdictions considering this issue have concluded that an...

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