Norris v. Clinkscales
|26 October 1896
|25 S.E. 797,47 S.C. 488
|NORRIS v. CLINKSCALES et al.
|South Carolina Supreme Court
Appeal from common pleas circuit court of Abbeville county; Earle Judge.
Action by Jane Estelle Clinkscales, as executrix, against A. J Clinkscales and another. On the death of plaintiff, E. B Norris, as executor, was substituted in her stead. There was a judgment for plaintiff, and defendants appeal. Reversed.
F. B. Gray and Parker & McGowan, for appellants.
Graydon & Graydon, for respondent.
This action for claim and delivery was brought by Jane Estelle Clinkscales to recover from the defendants certain personal property covered by a mortgage of which she was the assignee. After the commencement of the suit the plaintiff died, and her father and executor, E. B. Norris, was substituted as plaintiff. The cause was heard at Abbeville at the January term, 1896, before his honor, Judge Earle, and a jury, and resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff. The defendants appeal to this court from the rulings and charge of the circuit judge, and from the verdict of the jury, upon various grounds, which are set forth in the case in the form of ten exceptions. The conclusions arrived at by this court render it unnecessary to pass upon more than five of the exceptions, and these we will take up and consider in order.
The appellants' second exception alleges error "because the circuit judge erred in excluding the testimony of T. L. Clinkscales, Jr., under section 400 of the Code, when (1) that section of the Code had no application at all; and, (2) even if it had been applicable, the door was opened by Mrs. Estelle Clinkscales in her testimony, and the witness had the right, under the said section, to give his version of the transaction in reply to her." On the threshold of the main question involved in this exception the respondent's counsel make the objection that the testimony was excluded, not under section 400, but because it was contrary to the assignment the witness T. L. Clinkscales had made on the mortgage. In support of this view, the case does certainly show that the testimony was objected to by respondent's counsel "on the ground that this testimony is contrary to the assignment that the witness had made." This objection was overruled and the testimony admitted. But when court opened next morning the trial judge stated that he had some doubts as to the ruling of the previous day, and he decided to reverse it and "rule the testimony out, except so much of it as negatived the payment of the money as these plaintiffs show." It is manifest, however, that, although the motion to exclude was not grounded on section 400, the exclusion itself was placed upon no other ground. The circuit judge said: When it is borne in mind that the inhibition of section 400 refers particularly to testimony as to "any transactions" between the witness and a person deceased, and that J. P. Clinkscales was a person deceased, and that the testimony expunged was that part of T. L. Clinkscales was a person deceased, and that J. P. Clinkscales testimony which recounted "transactions" between him and the deceased person, and that the circuit judge in excluding it made use of the term "transaction" five times,--a word made technical by the Code, in section 400, and used by the judge in its technical sense,--there can be no doubt that the learned judge based his exclusion of the testimony upon section 400. If any further light were needed, it would be found in the charge to the jury, where the judge, again referring to the expunged testimony, said: While, therefore, it is true that plaintiff's counsel moved that the testimony be excluded "on the ground that this testimony is contrary to the assignment that the witness made,"it is also true that in excluding it the presiding judge did so upon an entirely different ground, namely, upon section 400 of the Code. Consequently, in deciding the question whether or not the exclusion of the testimony was error of law, we must consider, not the grounds submitted by the counsel, but the reasons expressed by the judge.
It may seem strange that after having been on our statute book for nearly 30 years, and after having been construed and elucidated by this court in innumerable appeals, section 400 of the Code should still appear to be hard to understand, and difficult to apply as a rule of evidence. And yet it is not strange when one regards the abnormal length of its periods, and the intricate involutions of its phraseology.
We can readily believe that no other rule of evidence gives as much trouble in the trial of causes as does the proviso of section 400. The first part of it reads as follows: "That  no party to the action or proceeding; nor  any person who was a legal or equitable interest which may be affected by the event of the action or proceeding; nor  any person who, previous to such examination, has had such an interest, however the same may have been transferred to, or come to, the party to the action or proceeding; nor  any assignor of anything in controversy in the action, shall be examined [a] in regard to any transaction or communication between such witness and a person at the time of such examination deceased, insane, or lunatic, as [b] a witness against a party then prosecuting or defending the action as executor, administrator, heir-at-law, next of kin, assignee, legatee, devisee, or survivor of such deceased person, or as assignee or committee of such insane person or lunatic, when [c] such examination, or any judgment or determination in any such action or proceeding, can in any manner affect the interest of such witness or the interest previously owned or represented by him." For the purpose of simplifying this very complex provision of the Code, we have inserted the figures 1, 2, 3, and 4, and the letters a, b, and c. A careful analysis of this proviso of section 400 shows that its purpose as a rule of evidence is to exclude the testimony of a witness who may belong to any one or more, or to all, of the classes indicated by the figures 1, 2, 3, and 4, but only when his testimony belongs to all three of the kinds described in the divisions a, b, and c. It describes four classes of persons, and three characteristics of testimony. The four classes of persons are these: (1) A party to the action or proceeding; (2) a person having an interest which may be affected by the event of the trial; (3) a person who has had such an interest, but which has been in any manner transferred to, or has in any manner come to, a party to the action or proceeding; (4) an assignor of a thing in controversy in the action. The three characteristics of the testimony are these: (a) In regard to any transaction or communication between the witness and a person deceased, insane, or lunatic; (b) against a party prosecuting or defending the action as executor, administrator, heir at law, next of kin, assignee, legatee, devisee, or survivor of such deceased person, or as assignee or committee of such insane person or lunatic; (c) when the present or previous interest of the witness may in any manner be affected by the testimony or by the event of the trial. It will be thus seen that, to justify the exclusion of testimony under this proviso of section 400, it should be shown to the satisfaction of the trial judge--First, that the witness belongs to one or more, or to all, of the four classes of persons whose testimony may under certain circumstances be excluded; and, secondly, that his testimony partakes of, not merely one or two of the disqualifying characteristics classified under a, b, and c, but that it possesses all three of those characteristics. To illustrate: A witness may belong to all four of the classes of persons described under 1, 2, 3, and 4, and his testimony may fall under the division a and b, but if it does not also fall under division c then it would be error to exclude it.
Applying these tests to the case before us, we find that the witness T. L. Clinkscales, whose testimony was excluded by his honor Judge Earle, belongs to three, if not all four, of the classes of persons indicated in section 400. He is a party to the action,--a defendant (class 1). He may be said to be interested in the event of the trial (class 2). He was the mortgagee of the mortgage which was transferred to the plaintiff's testator, and by virtue of which this action was brought (class 3). And he was the assignor of the said mortgage (class 4). We also find that the witness' testimony which was excluded, or rather which was first admitted and afterwards expunged, was in regard to transactions with a deceased persons, and therefore possessed a first disqualifying characteristic (division a). It is plain, too, that the interest of the witness would be affected by his examination, or by the judgment rendered in the cause. His testimony therefore possessed the third disqualifying characteristic (division c). But the record does not show that his testimony was "against a party then prosecuting or...
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