November 21, 2012 South Carolina Supreme Court published opinions

Harleysville Mutual Insurance Company v State 

In response to an opinion of the Court, the South Carolina legislature enacted a definition of “occurrence” to include faulty workmanship in construction projects. This statute applies to all general commercial insurance contracts past, present and future. Harleysville challenged the statute on constitutional grounds. The Court unanimously held the statute did not violate separation of powers principles as the targeted opinion was not final when the statute was enacted. It also unanimously held the statute was a rational response to the targeted opinion and thus was not special legislation. The Court, 3-2, held the statute impaired past contractual obligations as the law was unclear whether faulty construction claims must be covered and there was no emergency justifying the retroactive application. The dissenters argued the statute clarified law and was thus not an impairment.

State v Phillips 

The South Carolina Court of Appeals vacated Phillip’s life without parole sentence for arson on the grounds that an earlier burning conviction was not for burning a structure fitted for human habitation. The Court affirmed a modified holding the arson statute did not require the structure burned be fitted for human habitation, but, that the earlier burning conviction was for a structure not covered by the arson sentencing statute.

Preister v Cromer 

The Court held that Priester’s state tort claim arising form an ejection of an unbelted passenger was preempted by federal law. The United States Supreme Court remanded the case for reconsideration under new precedent. The Court, 4-1, held that the suit was preempted as the agency refused to impose the use of a particular type of glass based on a conclusion that certain glass types are safer for belted passengers and other types are safer for unbelted passengers. Thus, maintaining manufacturer choice was a substantial federal interest which would be undermined by the underlying suit. The dissent argued there was no federal policy to maintain choice as the agency material did not actually adopt any standards.

Sulton v HealthSouth Corporation 

Sulton obtained a verdict against HealthSouth and individual nurses for the worsening of a bed sore on her husband. The Court reversed holding that the jury charge on the standard of care, while it correctly stated the standard in one part, erroneously assigned a heightened duty to HealthSouth in another namely the greater the risk the greater the duty to act. It also held that the jury form was confusing as there was no way to simultaneously find HealthSouth not liable and a nurse liable and that allowing evidence of net operating income was error as only evidence of net worth is relevant to a punitive damages award.

In the Matter of Michael D. Shavo 

Shavo agreed to attorney discipline based on his guilty plea to making a false statement. The Court suspended Shavo for three years retroactive to the date of his interim suspension. Shavo must complete his probation sentence before applying for reinstatement.

In the Matter of Frank L. Valenta, Jr. 

Valenta is the general counsel for the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles. For several years, he refused orders to return tickets to magistrate court believing those orders were unlawful. He agreed to discipline and the Court publicly reprimanded him.

State v Langford 

South Carolina Code 1-7-330 vests control of the criminal docket in the hands of the solicitor. t. Langford argued the statute violates separation of powers and sought dismissal of charges on seedy trial grounds. The Court, 4-1, agreed the statute is unconstitutional, but, held there was no prejudice and affirmed. As solicitors are part of the executive branch and the right to set the calendar is a judicial function, 1-7-330 violates separation of powers and must fall. However, there was no prejudice here. While the system may allow some level of judge shopping, the only evidence offered by Langford was rulings in favor of the state which is insufficient. Nor were Langford’s speedy trial rights affected as delays to obtain translators and Langford’s coercion of a witness were not chargeable to the state. The dissent argued the challenge to 1-7-330 was not preserved and in any event placing control of the docket with the solicitor des not infringe upon judicial rights as the circuit court can protect defendants through continuances and other proper orders. The Court also issued an order setting out how cases are to be set by circuit courts form now on.

Terry v Terry 

Husband was ordered to leave the marital home in a temporary order. He refused to leave and appealed the temporary order. The family court ruled it had jurisdiction and held husband in contempt. The Curt, 4-1, affirmed holding appeals from temporary family court orders does not deprive the family court of jurisdiction to enforce those orders by contempt proceedings. The dissent argued temporary orders are like injunctions and are appealable, the notice of appeal ended the family court’s jurisdiction and the order was ambiguous.

Town of Mount Pleasant v Chimento

Chimento and others played Texas Hold ‘Em at a residence. The residence was raided. They were found guilty of violating South Carolina’s anti-gaming statute. The circuit court on appeal reversed ruling the statute did not apply to games of skill and in any event the statute was unconstitutional. In a splintered decision, the Court reversed. Two judges argued a private residence was a covered place relying on the statute and case law from the 1800s. They next ruled that any game, whether of skill or of chance, is covered by the statute so long as money or other things of value are wagered on the outcome. They finally argued that prior case law cured any vagueness and the statute, as construed, gave fair notice of what is prohibited. One justice agreed with the dissent as to the constitutional analysis, but joined the reversal on the basis that the defendants were clearly in violation of the statute an holding the place of gambling language unconstitutional would open the door to all gambling. She called upon the legislature to bring the statute up to date. Two judges dissented arguing that law enforcement are given inadequate guidance as to the criteria which make a place a home sued for gaming and the statute is thus unconstitutionally vague.

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