Clark v. Cantrell

Decision Date10 August 1998
Docket NumberNo. 2879.,2879.
PartiesJohn Kevin CLARK and Maggie Lee Anderson, Respondents, v. Annette Rochelle CANTRELL, Appellant.
CourtSouth Carolina Court of Appeals

Jack D. Griffeth and D. Sean Faulkner, both of Love, Thornton, Arnold & Thomason, Greenville; and Robert Bethune King, Anderson, for appellant.

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

HEARN, Judge:

Respondents John Kevin Clark and Maggie Lee Anderson brought this negligence action against Annette Rochelle Cantrell after an automobile wreck between Anderson and Cantrell. The jury returned a verdict finding Cantrell eighty-four percent at fault and liable for actual and punitive damages totaling $78,000 and $25,750, respectively. The trial court reduced actual damages by sixteen percent in proportion to Anderson's comparative negligence. Cantrell appeals, claiming the trial judge should have similarly apportioned the punitive damages and alleging numerous other errors. We disagree and affirm.

FACTS

On November 1, 1993, Anderson was driving an Oldsmobile belonging to Clark in Anderson County. David James was a passenger in the car. As Anderson turned left across a fourlane road into a gas station's service area, Cantrell, who was traveling in her car from the opposite direction, hit the rear passenger side of the Oldsmobile. The impact from the collision threw James from the car. Anderson and Clark sustained personal injuries. James died at the scene.

Several witnesses testified during trial about Cantrell's speed and reckless disregard for the safety of others. One witness and her husband "were scared to death" after Cantrell passed them. They assumed that Cantrell, whose hazard lights were flashing, was driving fast in order to reach a hospital. It appeared to them that Cantrell was driving so fast she could have killed someone. Another witness stated that when Cantrell crossed the intersection through a yellow traffic light, she "was driving very fast [with] hazard lights on." Cantrell's speed, he explained, "shook me up." A trooper who examined the scene estimated Cantrell's speed to have been between 67-71 miles per hour, almost twice that allowed in the 35 miles per hour business zone. Finally, one of Cantrell's experts, who estimated her speed to have been 57 miles per hour, conceded that had she followed the posted speed limit, she could have controlled her car and stopped without colliding with Anderson and James.

Evidence was also elicited concerning Cantrell's attitude following the accident. First, despite the accident's severity, Cantrell's immediate inquiry after the crash was not about the people injured, but about the condition of her car.1 Second, the same trooper who estimated Cantrell's speed reported that she laughed repeatedly during their interview. Finally, the only reason Cantrell offered to justify her speed was that she was in a rush to find a gas station because her car was about to run out of gas.

DISCUSSION
I. Punitive Damages

Cantrell argues because punitive damages have a compensatory component in South Carolina, they should bear a reasonable relationship to the plaintiff's conduct and should be reduced by the amount of the plaintiff's negligence. We disagree.

The primary focus of punitive damages is on the defendant's wrongdoing. F. Patrick Hubbard & Robert L. Felix, Comparative Negligence in South Carolina: Implementing Nelson v. Concrete Supply Co., 43 S.C.L.Rev. 273, 314 (1992). By contrast, compensatory damages depend on the plaintiffs injury, not the defendant's behavior, and involve a different standard of proof. Id. at 314.

Comparative negligence is the law in South Carolina. Nelson v. Concrete Supply Co., 303 S.C. 243, 244-45, 399 S.E.2d 783, 784 (1991). While this court has recently re-examined several traditional tort doctrines in light of Nelson, not every tort concept is affected by the adoption of comparative negligence. Compare Fernanders v. Marks Constr. of S.C., Inc., 330 S.C. 470, 499 S.E.2d 509 (Ct.App.1998)

(joint and several liability survives adoption of comparative negligence) with Davenport v. Cotton Hope Plantation Horizontal Property Regime, 325 S.C. 507, 516, 482 S.E.2d 569, 574 (Ct.App.1997) (7-2 decision), cert. granted in part, (Aug. 8, 1997) and Spahn v. Town of Port Royal, 326 S.C. 632, 638-41, 486 S.E.2d 507, 510-12 (Ct.App.1997), aff'd as modified, 330 S.C. 168, 499 S.E.2d 205, 208 (1998) (holding assumption of risk and last clear chance are merely factors for the jury to consider in apportioning negligence). We decline to impose a comparative negligence calculus on punitive damages because of the conflicting functions these legal concepts serve.

Although punitive damages have received increasing academic criticism in recent years,2 the doctrine's viability is unchallenged in South Carolina's jurisprudence. Unlike comparative negligence, which allocates loss according to relative fault, the primary purposes of punitive damages are punishment and deterrence. Gamble v. Stevenson, 305 S.C. 104, 110, 406 S.E.2d 350, 354 (1991). In addition to these two goals, the South Carolina Supreme Court has recognized that it also "vindicate[s] a private right." Id. While several cases conclude this vindicative quality adds a compensatory purpose,3 the terms "vindication" and "compensation" are not synonymous. See generally 22 Am.Jur.2d Damages §§ 3, 23-24, 731, 733 (1988) (discussing the different functions of compensatory and punitive damages).

Vindication denotes punishment and revenge. By contrast, compensation represents an offset or reimbursement which restores an injured party to the status quo. Random House Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language 417, 2123 (2d ed. 1987) and Webster's Third New International Unabridged Dictionary 463, 2553 (1961). Our supreme court has explained, "punitive damages are not given with a view to compensation, [but] in addition to compensation...." Shuler v. Heitley, 209 S.C. 198, 202, 39 S.E.2d 360, 361-62 (1946). Moreover, Gamble does not require juries to expressly apportion punitive damages, even though juries consider many factors in determining whether to award punitive damages. Gamble v. Stevenson, 305 S.C. 104, 110, 406 S.E.2d 350, 354 (1991). Thus, any compensatory purpose served by punitive damages is merely incidental.4 We hold, therefore, that punitive damages are not subject to reduction under a comparative negligence scheme.5 Finally, Cantrell maintains the trial court erred in refusing to strike punitive damages from Clark and Anderson's complaints. We disagree.

Punitive damages are awarded to punish wrongdoers for reckless, willful, wanton, or malicious behavior. Gilbert, 255 S.C. at 500, 179 S.E.2d at 723. Cantrell's excessive speed, coupled with her disregard for the commercial nature of the area, lack of remorse, and frivolous reason for speeding, demonstrate her reckless, willful, wanton, and malicious conduct. The trial court, therefore, properly refused Cantrell's motion to strike and correctly submitted the issue of punitive damages to the jury.

II. Directed Verdict/Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict

In reviewing the denial of motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), this court must view the evidence and its inferences in the light most favorable to the opposing party. Tubbs v. Bowie, 308 S.C. 155, 157, 417 S.E.2d 550, 552 (1992).

Relying on Horton v. Greyhound Corp., 241 S.C. 430, 437, 128 S.E.2d 776, 780 (1962), and its progeny, Cantrell argues she was entitled to a directed verdict or JNOV because her speed was not the proximate cause of the accident. Cantrell, however, misapprehends Horton`s holding. Proximate cause requires (1) causation in fact and (2) legal cause. Causation in fact is proved by establishing the injury would not have occurred "but for" the defendant's negligence, while legal cause hinges on foreseeability. Seals v. Winburn, 314 S.C. 416, 418, 445 S.E.2d 94, 96 (Ct.App.1994). Our supreme court explained the limited application of the Horton line of cases in Tubbs v. Bowie, 308 S.C. 155, 417 S.E.2d 550 (1992):

Each of those cases involved entry of a vehicle from a servient roadway onto the main highway, in such an abrupt fashion that an accident could not have been avoided, notwithstanding the excessive speed of the oncoming vehicle. In Blanding [v. Hammell, 267 S.C. 352, 228 S.E.2d 271 (1976) ], we noted
In those rare cases ... where speed has not been a causative factor, the court has focused on the inevitability of the accident, irrespective of the defendant's speed, due to an unexpected entry of the plaintiff into the defendant's right of way. Of course, in most automobile accident cases, speed creates imponderable issues of time and distance which must be resolved by the jury.

Id. at 158, 417 S.E.2d at 552 (emphasis supplied in original).

In this case, sufficient evidence supports the jury's finding that Cantrell's speed contributed to the accident. We cannot hold as a matter of law that Cantrell's speed was not the proximate cause.

III. Jury Charges

"It is the trial court's function to charge the jury on the applicable law as raised by the pleadings and supported by the evidence. In order to warrant reversal for failure to give a requested charge, the refusal must be both erroneous and prejudicial." Dalon v. Golden Lanes, Inc., 320 S.C. 534, 540, 466 S.E.2d 368, 372 (Ct.App.1996) (citations omitted).

Cantrell argues the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on the reasoning of Horton v. Greyhound and its progeny. The trial court stated it could not hold as a matter of law the accident was inevitable; therefore, the jury could find speed was a contributing factor to the accident. For the reasons stated above, we find no error.

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