May 1, 2013 South Carolina Court of Appeals published opinions

Castine v Castine

Defendant Castine sent two letters to county officials accusing Plaintiff Castine of drug use and criminal conduct. Plaintiff sued for defamation and the circuit court entered summary judgment as to liability. The panel, with one judge concurring in result only, affirmed. It held that Defendant Castine failed to prove his affirmative defense of substantial truth as he admitted one accusation was false. It held that Defendant Castine failed to prove his affirmative defense of common interest privilege as he admitted he sent the letters in an attempt to hurt Plaintiff Castine and get her fired. Because the statements were not privileged, presumed common law malice applied and no proof of actual damages was required as the letters constituted libel per se.

State v Pradubsri

Pradubsri was charged with drug trafficking and firearms offenses. He was prevented from asking the only witness connecting him to the drugs about the sentences she faced before entering a plea deal. He was convicted on all counts. The panel, with one judge dissenting in part, reversed and remanded for a new trial. The panel unanimously agreed that under South Carolina Supreme Court precedent, defendants must be allowed to ask witnesses who faced a mandatory minimum sentence before a plea deal the length of the minimum sentence. As the trial court here prohibited that questioning, it erred. The majority held the err was not harmless as the witness’ testimony was the only evidence connecting Pradubsri to the drugs. The dissent argued that the err was harmless because a police officer testified Pradubsri was at the crime scene, Pradubsri and the witness were involved in a lengthy relationship, he could have had control of the drugs earlier in the evening and Pradubsri’s attorney was able to bring out the witness’ drug use and criminal record. The dissent argued these facts demonstrate the conviction could have been obtained without the witness’ testimony and thus any err was harmless.

McNeil v South Carolina Department of Corrections

McNeil was fired by the department. She filed suit alleging wrongful discharge, due process violations and defamation. The trial court dismissed her complaint for failing to state a claim. The panel, with one judge dissenting as to one issue, affirmed. As to wrongful discharge, the majority held that dismissal was appropriate because McNeil did not identify any law she was required to break or any other public policy of the state which her termination was supposed to have violated. As to due process, the panel affirmed holding she received her grievance rights and in any event failed to allege any right to continue to work for the department. The panel also affirmed the dismissal of the defamation claim holding the complaint failed to set out which statements were false and why any statements made were nto privileged. The dissent in part argued that McNeil’s claims were novel enough that some discovery should have been allowed. It denied that allowing discovery here would allow any terminated at will employee to create a wrongful discharge claim just by alleging public policy violations.

Inglese v Beal

Inglese represented Beale and handled the closing on Beal’s sale of real property. Inglese failed to put an agreement to release a judgment lien in writing. After the sale, the lien holder did not release the lien, the buyer filed a claim against the title insurance company which sued and settled for reimbursement from Inglese. Inglese sued Beal for unjust enrichment and equitable indemnity. The trial court granted summary judgment to Beal. The panel, with one judge dissenting on one issue, affirmed. The majority held that Inglese did not bestow a benefit on Beal when he paid the title insurance company as it was done in self interest and it was equitable to prevent recovery here. As to the indemnity claim, the panel held that Inglese failed to prove his claim because Inglese’s actions, not the underlying judgment, caused the damages and the title insurance company’ harm was caused by Inglese, not Beal. The dissent in part argued that there were disputes as to material facts on the unjust enrichment claim and it should be tied to a jury. Namely, the dissent argued that it is unclear whether Beal received a benefit as the lien is now off the property, Inglese may have reasonably relied on Beal for repayment it may inequitable to allow Beal to not pay in these circumstances.

Penza v Pendleton Station, LLC

Penza loaned money to Pendleton. The deed was recorded and contained a description of property referred to in the paperwork as tract A. A year later, the deed was rerecorded with a statement that Tract A was never intended to be encumbered. Penza sued to foreclose his mortgage after Pendleton went bankrupt. The master awarded judgment to the bank which succeeded in title. The panel reversed. It held that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Tract A was covered by the mortgage as the deed mentions the tax ID number of the tract, the owner of the tract signed the mortgage and the tracts description was attached to the deed.

State v Martin

During Martin’s trial for robbery, the state was allowed to introduce evidence that Martin gave false information to a police officer during an encounter nearly a year after the alleged robbery. Martin was convicted on all counts. The panel affirmed on the basis of harmless error. It first held that the appropriate test for whether false information testimony should be admitted is the totality of the circumstances nexus test used for flight evidence. Applying here, the panel held there was no nexus as the encounter was a year later hundreds of miles away and Martin did not know he was being investigated for the robbery. The error was harmless, however, as Martin’s coconspirators testified against him, some of their testimony was corroborated by other witnesses and a disinterested witness testified that he gave Martin a handgun similar to that used in the robbery.

Chakrabarti v City of Orangeburg

City demolished a house owned by Chakrabarti. Chakrabarti sued for negligence and inverse condemnation. City raised the Tort Claim Act as a defense. The trial court found evidence existed which could prove gross negligence and submitted the case to the jury. The jury returned a verdict for Chakrabarti on both claims. The panel affirmed. It held the City was grossly negligent in that it issued a building permit, knew some construction was taking place yet demolished the house only a few months after issuing the permit. Because its own policy required two years without construction work before demolition should occur, the jury properly returned a verdict against City. The condemnation claim was reversed as Chakrabarti conceded the issue in its brief. The panel finally affirmed the damage award as it was within the evidence of payments made by Chakrabarti to contractors and testimony as to the fair market value of the house after renovations were complete.

Gibson v Wright

Gibson sued Wright for medical malpractice. At the trial, the judge allowed certain power point slides to be used by Wright’s expert, refused to declare a mistrial when Gibson was asked about his disability benefits and refused to allow Gibson to bring in another witness’ deposition through Wright. The panel affirmed. It held the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the power point slides to be used as summary devices particularly since it sustained some objections to certain slides and charged the jury that the slides were not evidence. The panel upheld the denial of the mistrial motion as the limine order was not concrete, the mention of disability was not in fat covered by the limine order and the judge charged the jury to disregard. Finally, the deposition was properly excluded as impeaching another witness with the deposition of an available witnesses is not allowed under the rules of evidence.

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