Ralph v. McLaughlin

Decision Date21 August 2019
Docket NumberAppellate Case No. 2017-000866,Opinion No. 5681
Citation834 S.E.2d 213,428 S.C. 320
CourtSouth Carolina Court of Appeals
Parties Richard RALPH and Eugenia Ralph, Appellants, v. Paul Dennis MCLAUGHLIN and Susan Rode McLaughlin, Respondents.

G. Dana Sinkler, of Gibbs & Holmes, of Wadmalaw Island, and Ainsley Fisher Tillman, of Ford Wallace Thomson LLC, of Charleston, both for Appellants.

George Hamlin O'Kelley, III, of Buist Byars & Taylor, LLC, of Mt. Pleasant, for Respondents.

GEATHERS, J.:

This case involves a property dispute on Seabrook Island between neighbors Richard and Eugenia Ralph ("the Ralphs"), and Paul and Susan McLaughlin ("the McLaughlins"). The dispute in question concerns the destruction of a drainage easement by the McLaughlins that, the Ralphs allege, exacerbated drainage issues on the Ralphs' property. At trial, the jury found for the Ralphs on their cause of action for trespass and awarded them $1,000 in nominal damages. On appeal, the Ralphs argue the circuit court erred in 1) failing to apply the rulings and factual determinations from a previous grant of summary judgment to a third-party defendant as the law of the case; 2) entering a directed verdict for the McLaughlins on the issue of punitive damages; 3) failing to find the McLaughlins trespassed as a matter of law; and 4) failing to grant the Ralphs a new trial absolute, a new trial nisi additur , or a new trial on damages. We reverse and remand the case for a new trial on compensatory damages and punitive damages.

FACTS

In 1984, E.M. Seabrook, Jr. prepared and recorded a plat depicting blocks 32 and 33 of Seabrook Island ("the Seabrook plat"). In 1987, he similarly prepared and recorded a second plat depicting blocks 32 and 33. To alleviate drainage issues concerning several lots on block 32, Seabrook established a twenty-foot-wide drainage easement and a corresponding no-build area across the back of lots 21 through 28, which are reflected in the plats. The plats also reflect a twenty-foot-wide drainage easement running between the property lines of lots 21 and 22, extending ten feet into each lot. The drainage easements contained a pipe that began at the front corner of lot 22, ran down the property line, turned ninety degrees, and extended across lots 22 through 28 before emptying into a water hazard on the neighboring golf course.1

In 1997, the Ralphs purchased lot 23 and recorded their deed, which granted them the property "with, all and singular, the Rights, Members, Hereditaments and Appurtenances to the said Premises belonging, or in anywise incident or appertaining." The deed also indicated the property was subject to "the Covenants, Conditions, Restrictions, Limitations, Affirmative Obligations and Easements of Record ...." Similarly, in 1998 or 1999, Carroll and Lorraine Gantz ("the Gantzes") purchased lot 22 and recorded their deed. The Gantzes' deed indicated lot 22 was subject to "a twenty[-]foot (20') easement for drainage and a ten[-]foot (10') easement for drainage as shown on the [Seabrook plat]," as well as "the area designated as ‘No Build Area’ shown on the [Seabrook plat]."

In 2002, the Gantzes, predecessors in title to the McLaughlins, approached the Seabrook Island Property Owners Association ("SIPOA") about eliminating the twenty-foot drainage easement and no-build area on the back of lot 22. Thereafter, SIPOA unanimously voted to give the easement back to the owners of lot 22. On September 11, 2002, a new plat prepared by Forsberg Engineering ("the Forsberg plat") entitled "Plat Showing Abandonment of an Existing 20' Drainage Easement Lot 22, Block 32," was recorded. The Forsberg plat also indicated the current no-build area was to be abandoned.

In October 2002, the Gantzes conveyed lot 22 to the McLaughlins, and the deed was recorded. The legal description of the property indicated that it remained subject to the ten-foot drainage easement depicted in the Forsberg plat and "all Restrictions, Covenants, Easements, Rights-of-Way, Matters and Conditions of record affecting said property ...." Mr. McLaughlin indicated he never discussed the twenty-foot easement with the Gantzes or SIPOA prior to closing, but he maintained that the real estate agent asserted the easement had been abandoned.2 Mr. McLaughlin also testified his closing attorney brought the twenty-foot easement to his attention before indicating that it had been abandoned, telling him "everything was appropriate and in order."

In 2006, the McLaughlins approached SIPOA's Architectural Review Board about building a house on their property. According to the plans, part of the house was to be sited over the twenty-foot easement and no-build area. At an August 15, 2006 SIPOA meeting, the preliminary plans were unanimously approved subject to several stipulations.3 Thereafter, the McLaughlins received a letter from the administrator of the Architectural Review Board, dated August 18, 2006, stating:

The Architectural Review Board has approved the Preliminary Plans submitted for Block 32 Lot 22, Seabrook Island, SC. Please address the following comments of the ARB and re-submit plans for Conditional Review.
1. Owner is to assume all responsibility for the underground drainage line at the 20' drainage easement/driveway.[4]
2. Owner is to assume all responsibility for the abandoned drainage easement that may contain a pipe.
3. Property lines must be located prior to any grading because of the Right-Of-Way for the SIPOA 20' drainage easement.

In June 2007, the McLaughlins received a letter from SIPOA regarding a plan to address the drainage pipe and eliminate the twenty-foot easement. The Ralphs received the same letter. After receiving the letter, Mr. Ralph met with John Thompson, the executive director of SIPOA, to voice his objections regarding any plans to remove the drainage pipe.

Over the course of the next year, the McLaughlins sought financing for their construction, closing on a loan in June 2008.

At some point, the McLaughlins received a call from the chair of the SIPOA legal committee indicating there were some issues concerning the drainage pipe. On September 22, 2008, Thompson sent an email to the owners of lots 21 through 28 seeking to schedule a meeting concerning the easement. The email summarized the dispute surrounding the easement5 and indicated the drainage pipe was still functioning. The email further indicated that several neighbors objected to the removal of the pipe due to concerns over adverse effects it would have on drainage and that SIPOA had hired an engineer, Robert George, to evaluate the consequences of removing the pipe.6

The meeting between SIPOA, the McLaughlins, and the affected property owners was held on September 29, 2008. At the meeting, Mr. George presented his findings and advised against removing the drainage pipe on lot 22, indicating that doing so would increase the likelihood of flooding and exacerbate existing drainage problems. Another meeting was held to discuss the issue on October 1, 2008. Following the meetings, several emails were exchanged between the affected property owners and the McLaughlins. In these emails, the property owners continued to express their concerns about the adverse impact the removal of the pipe would have on their properties, and the McLaughlins adamantly denied the existence of an easement on their lot. After the McLaughlins and their neighbors failed to reach an agreement, SIPOA indicated it had exhausted its options. On October 22, 2008, SIPOA sent a letter to the affected property owners indicating that it had rescinded the May 2002 resolution abandoning the easement.

On December 5, 2008, the McLaughlins emailed the neighboring property owners asserting that there was no easement on their property, they had been patient with SIPOA, and they would begin construction on their home. On December 9, 2008, the McLaughlins authorized their construction team to remove the drainage pipe. On the same day, SIPOA filed a lawsuit against the McLaughlins seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent the removal of the pipe.7 However, SIPOA withdrew the lawsuit two days later on December 11, 2008.8 Following the removal of the pipe, the McLaughlins built part of their home over the no-build area and the area formerly containing the pipe.

On September 30, 2011, the Ralphs filed a complaint9 against the McLaughlins seeking actual and punitive damages and alleging the McLaughlins caused flooding and poor drainage on the Ralphs' property by destroying the drainage easement. On December 6, 2011, the McLaughlins filed an answer and a third-party complaint against SIPOA alleging reliance on representations by SIPOA. On February 14, 2014, the Ralphs moved for partial summary judgment on their trespass claim. The McLaughlins filed a motion for summary judgment on February 19, 2014, and, a day later, SIPOA filed a motion for summary judgment. While these motions were pending, the Ralphs moved to strike the matter from the docket pursuant to Rule 40(j) of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure (SCRCP),10 and the parties entered into a consent order striking the case from the docket on June 24, 2014. The Ralphs moved to restore the case to the active docket on May 11, 2015, and the case was restored by consent order on June 23, 2015, pursuant to Rule 40(j), SCRCP.11

After the case was restored, the parties refiled their motions for summary judgment. On May 11, 2016, the Honorable G. Thomas Cooper, Jr.,12 heard all three motions for summary judgment, denying both the Ralphs' motion and the McLaughlins' motion. However, Judge Cooper granted SIPOA's motion for summary judgment, finding there was no evidence to show SIPOA had made any promises to the McLaughlins and, as a matter of law, the McLaughlins could not have reasonably relied on SIPOA.

At trial, the Ralphs presented Howard Yates as an expert in real property. Yates indicated that he examined the...

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4 cases
  • Martin v. Highland Indus., Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of South Carolina
    • September 8, 2020
    ...Highland. A trespass is "[t]he unwarrantable entry on land in the peaceable possession of another." Ralph v. McLaughlin, 428 S.C. 320, 834 S.E.2d 213, 229 (S.C. Ct. App. 2019) (quoting Snow v. City of Columbia , 305 S.C. 544, 409 S.E.2d 797, 802 (S.C. Ct. App. 1991) ). This is so "without r......
  • Tillman v. Highland Indus., Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of South Carolina
    • September 8, 2020
    ...Highland. A trespass is "[t]he unwarrantable entry on land in the peaceable possession of another." Ralph v. McLaughlin, 428 S.C. 320, 834 S.E.2d 213, 229 (S.C. Ct. App. 2019) (quoting Snow v. City of Columbia , 305 S.C. 544, 409 S.E.2d 797, 802 (S.C. Ct. App. 1991) ). This is so "without r......
  • Newbern v. Ford Motor Co., Appellate Case No. 2016-002209
    • United States
    • South Carolina Court of Appeals
    • August 21, 2019
  • Ralph v. McLaughlin
    • United States
    • South Carolina Supreme Court
    • March 17, 2021
    ...below, Respondents appealed. The court of appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial on damages alone. Ralph v. McLaughlin , 428 S.C. 320, 834 S.E.2d 213 (Ct. App. 2019). We reverse the court of appeals and reinstate the jury's $1,000 verdict, thereby ending this case.I.In the mid-1980s,......

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