Smith v. Tiffany

Decision Date26 April 2017
Docket NumberOpinion No. 27715,Appellate Case No. 2015-001159
Parties Walter SMITH, Respondent, v. Norman K. TIFFANY, Individually, Brown Trucking Company and Brown Integrated Logistics, Appellants, and Brown Trucking Company and Brown Integrated Logistics, Appellants, v. Corbett James Mizzell, III, Respondent.
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court

T. McRoy Shelley, III, and Steven T. Moon, both of Rogers Townsend & Thomas, PC, of Columbia for Appellants.

Allan P. Sloan, III, and Kristen B. Fehsenfeld, both of Pierce, Herns, Sloan & Wilson, LLC, of Charleston, Ralph Kennedy, of Kennedy Law Firm, LLC, of Batesburg-Leesville and Robert T. King, of King, Love & Hupfer, LLC, of Florence, for Respondents.

Bert G. Utsey, III, of Peters Murdaugh Parker Eltzroth & Detrick, PA, of Walterboro and John S. Nichols of Bluestein, Nichols, Thompson & Delgado, LLC, of Columbia, for Amicus Curiae The South Carolina Association for Justice.

JUSTICE KITTREDGE :

Appellants appeal from a trial court order granting Respondent Corbett Mizzell summary judgment, thereby dismissing Appellants' third party complaint.1 We affirm.

The underlying dispute arises from a motor vehicle accident in December 2012 in Saluda County in which Respondent Walter Smith was injured. Smith settled with Mizzell for the policy limits of Mizzell's liability coverage in exchange for a covenant not to execute. Smith then sued Appellants, claiming Appellants' negligence was a proximate cause of the accident. The issue before this Court stems from Appellants' efforts to have Mizzell added as a defendant. In the South Carolina Contribution Among Joint Tortfeasors Act (Act), the legislature abrogated pure joint and several liability for tortfeasors who are less than fifty percent at fault. The Act directs the fact-finder to apportion one-hundred percent of the fault between the plaintiff and "each defendant whose actions are the proximate cause of the indivisible injury." S.C. Code Ann. § 15-38-15(C)(3) (Supp. 2016).

Appellants urged the trial court to construe the Act, with a helping hand from our rules of civil procedure, to permit the addition of Mizzell as a defendant. The trial court rejected Appellants' various arguments and, in granting Mizzell summary judgment, applied the Act as written. In affirming the trial court, we are likewise constrained by the plain meaning of the unambiguous language in the Act. While we appreciate the equity-driven argument of Appellants, we must honor legislative intent as clearly expressed in the Act, lest we run afoul of separation of powers.

I.

This case arises out of an automobile collision that occurred on U.S. 178 in Saluda County in December 2012. Defendant Norman Tiffany was a commercial driver employed by Brown Trucking Co. (Brown Trucking) and Brown Integrated Logistics, Inc. (Brown Logistics), which owned and operated Tiffany's commercial vehicle. On the morning of the accident, Tiffany's commercial vehicle was disabled and parked along the shoulder of U.S. 178, adjacent to the exit of a gas station. Mizzell had stopped at the gas station, and as he attempted to exit the parking lot, his view of oncoming traffic was obstructed by Tiffany's truck positioned alongside the highway. According to Mizzell, because the truck was obstructing his view, he "eased forward to get a better view of oncoming traffic," and at that point his vehicle collided with the vehicle of Respondent Walter Smith who was traveling down U.S. 178.

Mizzell's liability carrier tendered the limits of Mizzell's liability policy to Smith. In return, Smith signed a covenant not to execute in favor of Mizzell. Thereafter, Smith filed suit against Tiffany, Brown Trucking, and Brown Logistics, alleging his injuries were proximately caused by Tiffany's negligent positioning of the commercial motor vehicle which completely obstructed the view of vehicles attempting to exit the gas station. Smith alleged that since Tiffany was acting within the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident, Brown Trucking and Brown Logistics were liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior. In addition to claiming Tiffany was negligent, Smith's complaint also alleged three other causes of action specifically against Brown Trucking and Brown Logistics: (1) negligent entrustment; (2) negligent hiring, supervision, and retention; and (3) negligent maintenance. Essentially, Smith alleged Brown Trucking and Brown Logistics were negligent in entrusting Tiffany with a commercial motor vehicle despite knowing Tiffany lacked proper training, experience, and knowledge of state and federal laws governing the parking and standing of commercial motor vehicles and that Brown Trucking and Brown Logistics were negligent in failing to ensure the commercial motor vehicle Tiffany drove was properly inspected and maintained to ensure the vehicle's hazard equipment functioned appropriately.

In their answer, Brown Trucking and Brown Logistics (collectively "Appellants") raised, in a shotgun approach, numerous affirmative defenses seeking to have Mizzell added as a defendant, including "Fault of Others" and "Failure to Join Indispensable Party/Rule 19 SCRCP." Appellants also asserted a third-party complaint under Rule 14, SCRCP, naming Mizzell as a third-party defendant. The gist of Appellants' third-party claims was that Mizzell was responsible for a significant portion of the plaintiff's injuries and that Appellants were therefore entitled to a determination of Mizzell's proportion of the fault, even though Mizzell had already settled with the plaintiff and was immune from further liability. Appellants' third-party complaint offered several alternative theories to justify apportioning fault to Mizzell: (1) a declaratory judgment cause of action seeking a determination as to Mizzell's portion of liability; (2) a standalone cause of action under section 15-38-15 of the Act seeking apportionment of fault to Mizzell; (3) joinder of Mizzell as an indispensable party under Rule 19, SCRCP ; (4) third-party negligence under Rule 14, SCRCP ; and (5) the due process clauses of the United States and South Carolina constitutions. Appellants concede Mizzell did not breach any duty of care owed to them; rather, Appellants assert they are entitled to apportionment based on an independent contribution claim against Mizzell.

Mizzell filed a motion for summary judgment as to Appellants' third-party claims. Specifically, Mizzell contended he was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Appellants' third-party claims because he neither owed nor breached any duty to Appellants as third-party plaintiffs. Mizzell further contended that section 15-38-50 of the Act discharged him a settling tortfeasor from liability for contribution to any other tortfeasor.

The trial court granted summary judgment and dismissed the third-party claims against Mizzell. As to the third-party negligence claim, the trial court found Mizzell was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there was no evidence that Mizzell breached any duty owed to Appellants or that Appellants suffered any damages purportedly caused by Mizzell. The trial court further found there was no basis for adding Mizzell as a party, reasoning that Mizzell's inclusion in the action was not necessary for the just adjudication of Smith's claims under Rule 19, SCRCP, that the third-party complaint was not proper under Rule 14, SCRCP, and that Appellants' due process rights were not violated by the inability to join Mizzell or include him on the verdict form for purposes of allocation. This direct appeal followed.

II.

On appeal, Appellants contend the trial court erred in failing to permit Mizzell to be named as a party and included on the verdict form so as to enable the jury to include Mizzell in the apportionment of fault for the accident. Appellants contend their claim derives from the statutory language added to the Act in 2005. At the outset, we note Appellants do not contend that any provision of the Act is ambiguous.

It is axiomatic that statutory interpretation begins (and often ends) with the text of the statute in question. See Timmons v. S.C. Tricentennial Comm'n , 254 S.C. 378, 401, 175 S.E.2d 805, 817 (1970) ("If a statute is clear and explicit in its language, then there is no need to resort to statutory interpretation or legislative intent to determine its meaning."); see also Transp. Ins. Co. v. S.C. Second Injury Fund , 389 S.C. 422, 429, 699 S.E.2d 687, 690 (2010) ("The text of a statute as drafted by the legislature is considered the best evidence of the legislative intent or will." (citing Hodges v. Rainey, 341 S.C. 79, 85, 533 S.E.2d 578, 581 (2000) )). Absent an ambiguity, there is nothing for a court to construe, that is, a court should not look beyond the statutory text to discern its meaning. "[T]here is no occasion for employing rules of statutory interpretation and the court has no right to look for or impose another meaning" unless a statutory provision is ambiguous. Paschal v. State Election Comm'n , 317 S.C. 434, 436, 454 S.E.2d 890, 892 (1995) (citing Miller v. Doe, 312 S.C. 444, 441 S.E.2d 319 (1994) ); see also Tilley v. Pacesetter Corp. , 355 S.C. 361, 373, 585 S.E.2d 292, 298 (2003) (observing that unless a statute is ambiguous, "the application of standard rules of statutory interpretation is unwarranted"). Only "[w]here the language of an act gives rise to doubt or uncertainty as to legislative intent" may the construing court "search for that intent beyond the borders of the act itself." Kennedy v. S.C. Ret. Sys. , 345 S.C. 339, 348, 549 S.E.2d 243, 247 (2001) (citing Lite House, Inc. v. J.C. Roy Co., 309 S.C. 50, 53, 419 S.E.2d 817, 819 (Ct. App. 1992) ).

In light of these well-established rules of statutory interpretation, we are unwilling to accept Appellants' invitation to look outside the text of the Act to justify the assumption that the legislature's use of differing terms—"defen...

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