Ramey v. Ramey, 21059

Decision Date25 September 1979
Docket NumberNo. 21059,21059
Citation273 S.C. 680,258 S.E.2d 883
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesRuby RAMEY, Respondent, v. Williard C. RAMEY, Appellant.

J. D. Todd, Jr., of Leatherwood, Walker, Todd & Mann, Greenville and Felix L. Finley, Jr., of Finley, Ponder & Warlick, Pickens, for appellant.

Michael Parham, of Abrams, Bowen, Robertson, Tapp & Parham, Greenville, for respondent.

Joel D. Bailey and Charles B. Macloskie, Beaufort, for S. C. Trial Lawyers Ass'n, amicus curiae.

NESS, Justice:

Respondent, Ruby Ramey, challenges the constitutionality of the South Carolina Guest Statute, § 15-1-290, Code of Laws of South Carolina (1976). We conclude the statute violates the equal protection guarantees of the South Carolina and United States Constitutions.

Respondent sued her husband, Williard, for personal injuries sustained by her while a non-paying guest passenger in his motor vehicle. In his answer the appellant, Williard Ramey, alleged that the accident was not intentional on his part and denied that he was guilty of any reckless, wilful, or wanton misconduct in the operation of his automobile within the meaning of the South Carolina Guest Statute. The gravamen of this section is to require a non-paying guest to prove more than simple negligence as a basis for recovery.

The lower court granted plaintiff's motion to strike, holding that the guest statute was inherently unconstitutional because there was "no rational justification for singling out persons injured in automobile accidents as different from all others injured in negligent torts ." (Tr. p. 10). We affirm.

The text of the statute is as follows:

" § 15-1-290. Liability for injury to guests in car.

"No person transported by an owner or operator of a motor vehicle as his guest without payment for such transportation shall have a cause of action against such motor vehicle or its owner or operator for injury, death or loss in case of an accident unless such accident shall have been intentional on the part of such owner or operator or caused by his heedlessness or his reckless disregard of the rights of others.

"This section shall not relieve a public carrier or any owner or operator of a motor vehicle which is being demonstrated to a prospective purchaser of responsibility for any injuries sustained by a passenger while being transported by such public carrier or while such motor vehicle is being so demonstrated."

The sole question for determination by this Court is set out in appellant's brief as follows:

"Is § 15-1-290 of the South Carolina Code of Laws (the South Carolina Guest Statute) inherently unconstitutional as being violative of Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution of the State of South Carolina and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States?" (Appellant's Brief, p. 5).

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Prior to the enactment of the guest statute in 1930, the common law imposed a duty of reasonable care on those who transported non-paying guests. This standard of care was altered by the guest statute which rendered a gratuitous guest's recovery contingent upon a showing of intentional or reckless misconduct by the host driver.

Between 1927 and 1939, twenty-seven states enacted versions of the guest statute, ostensibly to promote the following two goals: (1) the protection of host drivers from suits by ungrateful guests; and (2) the elimination of collusive lawsuits. With the advent of widespread automobile liability insurance, however, there has been increasing criticism of the guest statute in both academic and judicial forums. 1 Judicial tribunals have questioned whether guest statutes actually serve to further the twin goals which spurred their enactment. In recent years, nine states have held their guest statutes unconstitutional 2 despite the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Silver v. Silver, 280 U.S. 117, 50 S.Ct. 57, 74 L.Ed. 221 (1929). 3

In Silver, the Supreme Court considered whether the Connecticut guest statute impermissibly distinguished gratuitous passengers in automobiles from those in other classes of vehicles. In upholding the statute's constitutionality, the Court stated:

"(I)t is not so evident that no grounds exist for the distinction that we can say a priori that the classification is one forbidden as without basis, and arbitrary." 280 U.S. at 123, 50 S.Ct. at 59.

The Silver case is distinguishable as it did not consider the two historical justifications for the guest statute to determine if there was a rational connection between the objectives of the statute and the means provided to accomplish the objectives. Moreover, in Silver, the plaintiff attacked the statute solely on the ground that the distinction drawn between automobile guests and guests in other conveyances was impermissible. In rejecting this limited argument, the Silver Court approached the guest statute simply as one of the many automobile regulatory measures then being enacted. As noted by the Supreme Court of Idaho in a recent decision rejecting the constitutionality of that state's guest statute:

"The Silver case appears to have taken the approach that all regulations of automobiles are constitutional without examining the regulations in detail." Thompson v. Hagan, 96 Idaho 19, 523 P.2d 1365, 1370 (1974).

Our view parallels those of other courts which have held their guest statutes unconstitutional. The 1929 Silver decision is neither persuasive nor controlling due to its limited scope.

The prevailing equal protection standard is whether a legislative classification which excludes a certain class of persons is rationally related to the object of the statute. Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, 92 S.Ct. 251, 30 L.Ed.2d 225 (1971); Marley v. Kirby, 271 S.C. 122, 245 S.E.2d 604 (1978). 4 As stated earlier, two distinct justifications (1) the protection of hospitality and (2) the elimination of collusive lawsuits have traditionally been proffered to support the guest statute. Upon analysis, neither justification constitutes a rational basis for the differential treatment spawned by the statute.

First, the "protection of hospitality" rationale does not justify the statute's differential treatment of Automobile guests 5 as distinguished from all other recipients of a host's generosity. Our compulsory insurance law which requires every policy to afford uninsured motorist coverage to the insured defeats the hospitality argument upon which most prior cases have relied. If the hospitality justification were ever compelling, it has lost its force today. Manistee Bank & Trust Co. v. McGowan, 394 Mich. 655, 232 N.W.2d 636 (1975); Cohen, et al. v. Kaminetsky, et al., 36 N.J. 276, 176 A.2d 483 (1961).

The "collusion prevention" rationale is similarly untenable. Although the guest statute may prevent some collusive suits between hosts and their passengers, the statute's overinclusiveness is devastating as it operates to bar the great majority of Valid claims.

"(T)he wholesale elimination of all guests' causes of action for negligence does not treat similarly situated persons equally, but instead improperly discriminates against guests on the basis of a factor which bears no significant relation to actual collusion." Brown v. Merlo, 8 Cal.3d 855, 106 Cal.Rptr. 388, 391, 506 P.2d 212, 215 (1973).

We believe the proper way to ferret out fraudulent actions is to impose existing civil law sanctions rather than to exclude an entire class of claims. Therefore, we cannot accept the premise that the supposed prevention of collusive lawsuits may justify a statute which bars meritorious litigation.

Having concluded the guest statute bears no rational relation to its ostensible purpose, the reasoning of Marley v. Kirby, supra, becomes apposite. In Marley, The South Carolina comparative negligence statute, Code § 15-1-300 (1976), was held constitutionally defective on equal protection grounds due to its irrational limitation to motor vehicle accidents. 6

We believe the guest statute is doubly onerous, as it is limited to motor vehicles and is accordingly defective under Marley, and it irrationally distinguishes non-paying guests from paying passengers.

We affirm the trial court's conclusion that Code § 15-1-290 violates the equal protection guarantees of Article I, § 3 of the South Carolina Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and apply this holding with modified prospectivity to all similar pending and future actions.

LEWIS, C. J., and GREGORY, J., concur.

LITTLEJOHN and RHODES, JJ., dissent.

LITTLEJOHN, Justice (dissenting):

I respectfully dissent and would reverse the order of the lower court.

Our guest statute was enacted by the legislature in 1930. It is an exact copy of one enacted by the legislature of Connecticut in 1927. See Fulghum v. Bleakley, 177 S.C. 286, 181 S.E. 30 (1935). In Silver v. Silver, 280 U.S. 117, 50 S.Ct. 57, 74 L.Ed. 221 (1929), the United States Supreme Court held the Connecticut statute constitutional. In Cannon v. Oviatt, 419 U.S. 810, 95 S.Ct. 24, 42 L.Ed.2d 37 (1974), the same Court summarily affirmed the Utah Supreme Court's decision upholding its guest statute. This court is bound, as to the federal Constitution, by the ruling implicit in the summary dismissal. See Hicks v. Miranda, 422 U.S. 332, 95 S.Ct. 2281, 45 L.Ed.2d 223 (1975). I would hold that the statute does not violate the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

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9 cases
  • Malan v. Lewis
    • United States
    • Utah Supreme Court
    • May 1, 1984
    ...of South Carolina remarked, "If the hospitality justification were ever compelling, it has lost its force today." Ramey v. Ramey, 273 S.C. 680, 685, 258 S.E.2d 883, 885 (1979). See also, e.g., Henry v. Bauder, 213 Kan. 751, 518 P.2d 362 (1974); Laakonen v. Eighth Judicial District Court, 91......
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    • West Virginia Supreme Court
    • January 12, 1987
    ...v. Tyler, 43 Ohio App.2d 163, 335 N.E.2d 373 (1974); S.C.Code Ann. § 15-1-290 (1977), declared unconstitutional in Ramey v. Ramey, 273 S.C. 680, 258 S.E.2d 883 (1979); Utah Code Ann., § 41-9-1, (1953), declared unconstitutional in Malan v. Lewis, Utah 693 P.2d 661 (1984); Wyo.Stat. § 31-5-1......
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    • United States
    • Iowa Supreme Court
    • June 18, 1980
    ...Brown v. Merlo, 8 Cal.3d 855, 106 Cal.Rptr. 388, 506 P.2d 212 (1973); McGeehan v. Bunch, 88 N.M. 308, 540 P.2d 238 (1975); Ramey v. Ramey, S.C., 258 S.E.2d 883 (1979). In a series of recent appeals from state court decisions upholding the guest statute the Supreme Court has chosen to dismis......
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    • South Carolina Supreme Court
    • July 2, 1980
    ...the immunity doctrine prevents collusive lawsuits between parent and child. We reject this for the same reasons noted in Ramey v. Ramey, S.C., 258 S.E.2d 883 (1979), where we struck down the guest-passenger As the parental immunity doctrine is court-created, we are required to examine its h......
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