Howard v. Roberson

Decision Date20 December 2007
Docket NumberNo. 4326.,4326.
Citation654 S.E.2d 877
PartiesJodi HOWARD, Respondent, v. Calvin ROBERSON and Troy Lawhorn, Defendants, of whom Calvin Roberson is, Appellant.
CourtSouth Carolina Court of Appeals

William Bailey Woods, of Lexington, for Appellant.

Gary Walton Popwell, Jr., of Columbia, for Respondent.

Robert A. McKenzie and Gary H. Johnson, II, of Columbia, Amicus Curiae for Troy Lawhorn.

ANDERSON, J.:

This civil action involves Jodi Howard's claim for damages for injuries sustained in an automobile accident against defendants Calvin Roberson and Troy Lawhorn. The trial court directed a verdict in Howard's favor on liability. A jury found Roberson liable and awarded Howard damages for medical expenses and lost wages only. Howard moved for new trial nisi additur and the trial court granted a new trial on the issue of damages alone against Roberson based on the thirteenth juror doctrine. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.

FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On the night of August 23, 2003, Roberson and Lawhorn were driving in the same traffic lane on Highway 70. Lawhorn's pickup truck was in front of a van driven by an unknown driver, and Roberson followed behind the van. Roberson attempted to pass the van in front of his vehicle. At the same time, Lawhorn slowed and began to make a left turn onto a public road. The vehicles driven by Roberson and Lawhorn collided, injuring Howard, a passenger in Lawhorn's truck. Howard initiated this action against Roberson and Lawhorn to recover damages for his injuries.

At the close of the defendants' case, Howard moved for a directed verdict on the issue of negligence against Roberson for violation of section 56-5-1880 of the South Carolina Code (2006). Section 56-5-1880(a)(2) prohibits vehicles from driving on the left side of a roadway "[w]hen approaching within one hundred feet of or traversing any intersection." The trial court granted Howard's motion for directed verdict but not against Roberson alone. Instead, the trial court granted the motion finding, "There is evidence of negligence on both or one of the defendants." The trial court later instructed the jury, "[Y]ou may find against the Defendant, Mr. Roberson, or you may find against the Defendant, Mr. Lawhorn, or you can find against both of them. You can find against one of the two or you can find against both."

During deliberation, the jury asked the trial court if they could apportion seventy-five percent of the fault to Roberson and twenty-five percent to Lawhorn. The trial court explained the jury could not assign fault in that manner. Neither party raised this issue on appeal. The jury found only Roberson negligent and awarded Howard $7,672.47 in actual damages for medical expenses and lost wages. The award did not reflect inclusion of pain and suffering. Howard moved for a new trial nisi additur, stating the jury apparently ignored the law as it related to pain and suffering. The trial court took the matter under advisement and, in a form order, granted Howard a new trial solely on the issue of damages based on the thirteenth juror doctrine. In its subsequent written order the trial court ruled the jury's findings regarding pain and suffering were "contrary to the fair preponderance of the evidence [and] . . . [t]he Plaintiff suffered obvious injuries which obviously had to be painful."

ISSUES

1. Did the trial court err in directing a verdict in Howard's favor on the issue of liability?

2. Did the trial court err in granting Howard a new trial on damages based on the thirteenth juror doctrine?

STANDARD OF REVIEW

When reviewing a trial court's ruling on a directed verdict, this court will reverse if no evidence supports the trial court's decision or the ruling is controlled by an error of law. Law v. S.C. Dep't of Corr., 368 S.C. 424, 434-35, 629 S.E.2d 642, 648 (2006); McMillan v. Oconee Mem'l Hosp., Inc., 367 S.C. 559, 564, 626 S.E.2d 884, 886 (2006). The appellate court must determine whether a verdict for the party opposing the motion would be reasonably possible under the facts as liberally construed in his or her favor. Pye v. Estate of Fox, 369 S.C. 555, 564, 633 S.E.2d 505, 509 (2006); Erickson v. Jones St. Publishers, L.L.C., 368 S.C. 444, 463, 629 S.E.2d 653, 663 (2006). If the evidence as a whole is susceptible to more than one reasonable inference, a jury issue is created and the motion should be denied. Proctor v. Dep't of Health and Envtl. Control, 368 S.C. 279, 292, 628 S.E.2d 496, 503 (Ct.App. 2006). A motion for directed verdict goes to the entire case and may be granted only when the evidence raises no issue for the jury as to liability. The Huffines Co., LLC v. Lockhart, 365 S.C. 178, 187, 617 S.E.2d 125, 129 (Ct.App.2005). When considering directed verdict motions, neither the trial court nor the appellate court has authority to decide credibility issues or to resolve conflicts in the testimony or evidence. Wright v. Craft, 372 S.C. 1, 19, 640 S.E.2d 486, 496 (Ct.App.2006) (citing Erickson, 368 S.C. at 463, 629 S.E.2d at 663).

"The grant or denial of new trial motions rests within the discretion of the trial judge and his decision will not be disturbed on appeal unless his findings are wholly unsupported by the evidence or the conclusions reached are controlled by error of law." Chapman v. Upstate RV & Marine, 364 S.C. 82, 88-89 610 S.E.2d 852, 856 (Ct. App.2005) (citing Vinson v. Hartley, 324 S.C. 389, 405, 477 S.E.2d 715, 723 (Ct.App.1996)); Trivelas v. S.C. Dep't of Transp., 357 S.C. 545, 553, 593 S.E.2d 504, 508 (Ct.App.2004). An appellate court may only reverse a trial court's decision regarding a new trial nisi if the trial court abused its discretion in deciding a motion for new trial nisi additur to the extent an error of law results. Green v. Fritz, 356 S.C. 566, 570, 590 S.E.2d 39, 41 (Ct.App.2003).

LAW/ANALYSIS
I. Directed Verdict Motion

Roberson argues the trial court erred in granting Howard a directed verdict motion. Specifically, Roberson contends because Howard made a motion for a directed verdict against Roberson alone, the trial court erred in granting the motion holding either Roberson or Lawhorn or both drivers negligent. We disagree.

When evidence presented at trial yields only one conclusion concerning liability, a trial court may properly grant a motion for directed verdict. See Ecclesiastes Prod. Ministries v. Outparcel Assocs., LLC, 374 S.C. 483, 490, 649 S.E.2d 494, 497 (Ct.App. 2007) (citing Carolina Home Builders, Inc. v. Armstrong Furnace Co., 259 S.C. 346, 358, 191 S.E.2d 774, 779 (1972)). See also Swinton Creek Nursery v. Edisto Farm Credit, ACA, 334 S.C. 469, 476-77, 514 S.E.2d 126, 130 (1999) ("When the evidence yields only one inference, a directed verdict in favor of the moving party is proper."). In considering a motion for directed verdict, the trial court must view the evidence and inferences that can be drawn from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Doe v. ATC, Inc., 367 S.C. 199, 204, 624 S.E.2d 447, 449 (Ct.App.2005); (citing Sabb v. S.C. State Univ., 350 S.C. 416, 427, 567 S.E.2d 231, 236 (2002)). So long as no more than one inference is created from the evidence presented, a jury issue is not created, and the trial court is proper in directing a verdict. Henson v. Int'l Paper Co., 358 S.C. 133, 147, 594 S.E.2d 499, 506 (Ct.App.2004) (holding where the evidence is susceptible of more than one reasonable inference, a jury issue is created and the court may not grant a directed verdict).

In the case sub judice, Roberson and Lawhorn each owed a duty to other drivers and passengers like Howard when operating their respective vehicles. Pursuant to section 56-5-2150 of the South Carolina Code (2006), Lawhorn had a duty to turn his vehicle safely and use the appropriate turn signal when making a left turn onto a roadway. Specifically, section 56-5-2150(a) provides, "No person shall turn a vehicle or move right or left upon a roadway unless and until such movement can be made with reasonable safety nor without giving an appropriate signal as provided for in this section." Additionally, section 56-5-2150(b) mandates, "A signal of intention to turn or move right or left when required shall be given continuously during not less than the last one hundred feet traveled by the vehicle before turning." Accordingly, the law compelled Lawhorn to signal and turn safely.

Likewise, Roberson owed a duty pursuant to section 56-5-1880 of the South Carolina Code (2006) not to pass other vehicles within one hundred feet of an intersection. The trial court defined "intersection" as "[t]he junction of an unimproved road publicly maintained with a paved highway." See Carma v. Swindler, 228 S.C. 550, 557, 91 S.E.2d 254, 258 (1956); see also S.C.Code Ann. § 56-5-490 (2006). Furthermore, "The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left thereof at a safe distance and shall not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle." S.C.Code Ann. § 56-5-1840(1) (2006). South Carolina jurisprudence required Roberson to abide by these statutes as he passed the van on the night of the accident. Finally, both Roberson and Lawhorn were required to drive their automobiles at a safe and reasonable speed under the conditions existing at the time of the accident. S.C.Code Ann. § 56-5-1520 (2006). Whether Lawhorn and Roberson complied with these laws created a question for the jury.

In granting Howard's motion for a directed verdict, the trial court found either Roberson, or Lawhorn, or both, breached at least one duty on the night of the accident. The effect of the court's decision left the issue of who was liable open for determination by the trier of fact. The jury's task was to decide which driver, if not both, was at fault and to calculate damages.

The trial court properly directed a verdict for Howard on the...

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