Vinson v. Hartley, 2572

CourtCourt of Appeals of South Carolina
Citation324 S.C. 389,477 S.E.2d 715
Decision Date14 October 1996
Docket NumberNo. 2572,2572
PartiesMark K. VINSON, Appellant, v. Patricia HARTLEY, Respondent.

Michael A. Hart, of Turnipseed & Associates, Columbia, for appellant.

Robert A. McKenzie and Robert M. Cook, II, both of McDonald, McKenzie, Rubin, Miller & Lybrand, Columbia, for respondent.


Mark Vinson (Vinson) sued Patricia Hartley (Hartley) for damages for injuries he alleged he received in an automobile collision with Hartley. Hartley admitted negligence but contested whether the accident was the proximate cause of Vinson's injuries. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Hartley. The trial court denied Vinson's motions for reformation of the verdict, new trial nisi additur, and new trial absolute. Vinson appeals the denial of these motions. We affirm. 1


On September 26, 1992, Vinson and Hartley were involved in an automobile accident in Columbia, South Carolina. Hartley made a U-turn on Lady Street and struck Vinson, who saw Hartley completing the U-turn and followed her until she pulled over. When Vinson left the scene, he felt fine except for a headache. He did not complain of any injuries at the scene. No evidence was introduced that Vinson went to the emergency room after the accident or ever went to the hospital. Vinson also did not need an ambulance at the scene.

The next day Vinson was in pain, had a headache, and his back, neck, and shoulders were sore. Approximately one week later, two of his teeth chipped.

Vinson did not immediately seek medical treatment, but first consulted an attorney. Instead of seeing his long-time health care givers, Vinson sought treatment from Dr. Joseph Matthews, a medical doctor, and Dr. Paul Carlson, a dentist. Vinson was referred by his attorney to these medical providers.

In Hartley's answer, she denied Vinson was injured in the collision. She further denied her alleged wrongdoing was the proximate cause of Vinson's injuries.

During opening statements, defense counsel admitted Ms. Hartley was at fault. He stated she made a U-turn and ran into the back of Vinson's car. However, he argued Vinson did not indicate he was hurt at the scene and did not go to his family doctor for treatment. Defense counsel stated Vinson was "not injured as a result of this accident, and certainly was not injured as much as he wants you to think he was injured."

Vinson called two witnesses: himself and his dentist, Dr. Carlson. Hartley called no witnesses, but her counsel cross-examined both of Vinson's witnesses at length. As part of his damages, Vinson introduced bills for physical therapy, drugs, and dental work. Included in the $2650 dentist's bill was a charge for a partial denture.

Vinson had experienced a significant amount of dental work prior to the accident, including the installation of a partial denture, tooth extractions, and a root canal. Although Vinson claimed dental injuries, he admitted that he did not hit his mouth or do anything during the accident that would have injured his teeth. His teeth were not chipped at that time. Vinson did not know when his partial cracked and could not tell the jury it was cracked in the accident. He was not even aware his partial was cracked until Dr. Carlson told him. His teeth chipped or broke off about a week or ten days after the accident.

Additionally, Vinson stated he missed time from work as a result of the accident. Evidence concerning a lost wages claim was developed during direct examination. However, Vinson acknowledged he was not working at the time of the accident. He had earlier testified under oath in his deposition that he had lost no time from work and was not making a claim for lost wages. Eventually, Vinson withdrew his claim for lost wages.

Dr. Carlson examined Vinson on October 6, 1992. At the time, two of Vinson's teeth were broken off and he had a broken partial denture which Vinson told him had been broken in an automobile accident. Dr. Carlson During closing arguments, defense counsel argued about the credibility of witnesses and Vinson's referral to the doctors by his attorney. There was no objection to the argument.

put crowns on the two broken teeth and replaced the partial denture. He testified that Vinson's broken teeth and partial plate were "most probably" caused by the accident. Yet, Carlson had not seen Vinson previously and did not know the condition of Vinson's dental work prior to the accident.

In the jury charge, the court instructed the jury, without objection:

The defendant in this case has admitted that they were negligent; so there are two things that you have to decide. Was the plaintiff personally injured; and if so, were those injuries caused by this negligence?


[T]he defendant has admitted she was negligent. You have to decide whether or not the injuries claimed by the plaintiff were caused by the negligence of the defendant. That's a concept called proximate cause.

A general charge was given to the jury in reference to credibility of witnesses.

After a defense verdict, Vinson moved for judgment non obstante veredicto and a new trial pursuant to the "Thirteenth Juror" doctrine. After colloquy inter sese court and counsel, these motions were denied. Subsequently, Vinson filed a motion to reform the jury verdict to conform to instructions and for new trial nisi additur or, in the alternative, for a new trial absolute. The trial court denied the motions without a hearing.


Did the trial court err in denying appellant Vinson's motions for reformation of the verdict, new trial nisi additur, or in the alternative, new trial absolute?


Vinson argues the trial court erred in failing to reform the verdict to one for the plaintiff because a defense verdict was inconsistent with Hartley's admission of liability and the court's instructions. He asserts that because he presented evidence of his damages he should have received a verdict in his favor. He contends he is entitled to reformation of the verdict via a new trial nisi additur. Alternatively, he seeks a new trial absolute.

Hartley argues that although she admitted her fault in causing the accident, she contested causation and damages. She contends the jury had to assess the credibility of Vinson and his dentist as to Vinson's alleged physical injuries and whether those injuries were caused by the accident. She avers the defense verdict was amply supported by the evidence presented and the trial court's instructions, and was consistent with a jury finding that Vinson's alleged injuries were not related to the accident. Hartley maintains that, as a result, the trial court correctly denied Vinson's motion to reform the verdict and grant a new trial nisi additur, or alternatively, a new trial absolute.


To prevail in an action founded in negligence, the plaintiff must establish three essential elements: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) a breach of that duty by a negligent act or omission; and (3) damage proximately caused by a breach of duty. Newton v. South Carolina Pub. Rys. Comm'n, 312 S.C. 107, 439 S.E.2d 285 (Ct.App.1993), rev'd on other grounds, 319 S.C. 430, 462 S.E.2d 266 (1995). If the plaintiff fails to prove any one of these elements, the action will fail. Id. Actionable negligence is based upon the breach of duty to do or refrain from doing some particular act. Hodge v. Crafts -Farrow State Hosp., 286 S.C. 437, 334 S.E.2d 818 (1985). A breach of duty exists when it is foreseeable that one's conduct may likely injure the person to whom the duty is owed. Horne v. Beason, 285 S.C. 518, 331 S.E.2d 342 (1985). The damages allegedly sustained must be shown to have been proximately caused, i.e. causally connected, to the breach of duty in order to warrant a recovery. Id. If one neglects a duty which proximately causes injury to another, recovery is warranted. Hodge, supra.

In a negligence action, the plaintiff must prove proximate cause. Rush v The touchstone of proximate cause in South Carolina is foreseeability. Koester v. Carolina Rental Ctr., Inc., 313 S.C. 490, 443 S.E.2d 392 (1994); Young v. Tide Craft, Inc., 270 S.C. 453, 242 S.E.2d 671 (1978). Foreseeability is determined by looking to the natural and probable consequences of the act complained of. Koester, supra. A plaintiff therefore proves legal cause by establishing the injury in question occurred as a natural and probable consequence of the defendant's negligence. Bramlette, supra; Greenville Memorial Auditorium v. Martin, 301 S.C. 242, 391 S.E.2d 546 (1990); Childers v. Gas Lines, Inc., 248 S.C. 316, 149 S.E.2d 761 (1966). Although foreseeability of some injury from an act or omission is a prerequisite to establishing proximate cause, the plaintiff need not prove that the person charged with negligence should have contemplated the particular event which occurred. Bramlette, supra; Childers, supra. It is sufficient that he should have foreseen his negligence would probably cause injury to someone. Greenville Memorial Auditorium, supra; Childers, supra.

Blanchard, 310 S.C. 375, 426 S.E.2d 802 (1993); Bramlette v. Charter-Medical-Columbia, 302 S.C. 68, 393 S.E.2d 914 (1990). Negligence is not actionable unless it is a proximate cause of the injury. Hanselmann v. McCardle, 275 S.C. 46, 267 S.E.2d 531 (1980). Proof of proximate cause requires proof of both causation in fact and legal cause. Rush, supra; Oliver v. South Carolina Dep't of Hwys. and Pub. Transp., 309 S.C. 313, 422 S.E.2d 128 (1992). Causation in fact is proved by establishing the injury would not have occurred "but for" the defendant's negligence. Rush, supra; Oliver, supra; Bramlette, supra; Thomas v. South Carolina Dep't of Hwys. and Pub. Transp., 320 S.C. 400, 465 S.E.2d 578 (Ct.App.1995). Legal cause is proved by establishing foreseeability. Oliver, supra; Bramlette, supra.

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