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Stokes-Craven Holding Corp. v. Robinson

Supreme Court of South Carolina

May 25, 2016

Stokes-Craven Holding Corp., d/b/a Stokes-Craven Ford, Appellant,
Scott L. Robinson and Johnson McKenzie & Robinson, LLC, Respondents. Appellate Case No. 2013-001452

          Heard December 10, 2014

         Appeal From Clarendon County George C. James, Jr., Circuit Court Judge

          Andrew K. Epting, Jr. and Michelle Nicole Endemann, both of Andrew K. Epting, Jr., L.L.C., of Charleston, for Appellant.

          Susan Taylor Wall and Henry Wilkins Frampton, IV, both of McNair Law Firm, P.A., of Charleston, for Respondent Scott Lamar Robinson; Warren C. Powell, Jr., of Bruner Powell Wall & Mullins, L.L.C., of Columbia, for Respondent Johnson McKenzie & Robinson, L.L.C.


         After careful consideration of Respondents' petition for rehearing, the Court grants the petition for rehearing, dispenses with further briefing, and substitutes the attached opinions for the opinions previously filed in this matter.


         In this legal malpractice case, Stokes-Craven Holding Corporation d/b/a Stokes-Craven Ford ("Stokes-Craven") appeals the circuit court's order granting summary judgment in favor of Scott L. Robinson and his law firm, Johnson, McKenzie & Robinson, L.L.C., (collectively "Respondents") based on the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations. Stokes-Craven contends the court erred in applying this Court's decision in Epstein v. Brown, 363 S.C. 372, 610 S.E.2d 816 (2005), [1] and holding that Stokes-Craven knew or should have known that it had a legal malpractice claim against its trial counsel and his law firm on the date of the adverse jury verdict rather than after this Court affirmed the verdict and issued the remittitur in Austin v. Stokes-Craven Holding Corp., 387 S.C. 22, 691 S.E.2d 135 (2010). We overrule Epstein, reverse the circuit court's order, and remand the matter to the circuit court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Factual / Procedural History

         Donald C. Austin filed suit against Stokes-Craven, an automobile dealership, after he experienced problems with his used truck and discovered the vehicle had sustained extensive damage prior to the sale. Austin v. Stokes-Craven Holding Corp., 387 S.C. 22, 691 S.E.2d 135 (2010). In his Complaint, Austin alleged the following causes of action: revocation of acceptance, breach of contract, negligence, constructive fraud, common law fraud, violation of the South Carolina Motor Vehicle Dealer's Act (the "Dealer's Act"), violation of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act ("UTPA"), and violation of the Federal Odometer Act. Based on these claims, Austin sought actual damages, punitive damages, prejudgment interest, and attorney's fees and costs. Id. at 35, 691 S.E.2d at 141-42. Stokes-Craven was represented by Scott L. Robinson of Johnson, McKenzie & Robinson, L.L.C. throughout the trial proceedings. On August 16, 2006, after a three-day trial, the jury found in favor of Austin and awarded $26, 371.10 in actual damages and $216, 600 in punitive damages. Id. at 35, 691 S.E.2d at 142.

         Austin and Stokes-Craven filed cross-appeals to this Court. Although Robinson was listed as counsel of record on the appellate pleadings, Stokes-Craven had employed attorneys with Young, Clement, Rivers, L.L.P. to represent it during the course of the appeal. On March 8, 2010, a majority of this Court affirmed the jury's verdict and held that: (1) there was no prejudicial abuse of discretion in admitting certain challenged testimony; (2) Austin offered proof of actual damages in the amount of $26, 371.10; (3) Austin failed to prove Stokes-Craven violated the Federal Odometer Act with the requisite intent to defraud him as to the mileage of the truck; (4) the verdicts of fraud and violation of the UTPA were not inconsistent; and (5) there was evidence to support the jury's award of $216, 000 in punitive damages. Id. at 59, 691 S.E.2d at 154. This Court issued the remittitur on April 21, 2010.[2]

         On August 16, 2010, Stokes-Craven filed a legal malpractice action against Respondents, alleging negligence and breach of fiduciary duty in trial counsel's representation of Stokes-Craven both prior to and during the trial. Specifically, Stokes-Craven alleged that trial counsel failed to: adequately investigate the facts of the case; prepare or serve written discovery; depose witnesses; obtain copies of the plaintiff's experts' curricula vitae; prepare a pretrial brief, trial exhibits, voir dire, and requests to charge; preserve certain evidentiary issues for appellate review; notify Stokes-Craven's insurance carrier about the claims; and settle the case prior to the jury verdict. Based on these purported errors, Stokes-Craven claimed the jury returned the adverse verdict. Respondents generally denied the allegations and asserted several defenses, including that Stokes-Craven's claims were barred by the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations.

         Subsequently, Respondents filed motions for summary judgment. Stokes-Craven filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment and a motion to compel discovery of Respondents' professional liability policy applications for the years 2002 through 2012, all correspondence between Respondents and their malpractice insurer, and the billing records for computer research from any research provider used by Respondents for the years 2003 through 2006.

         Following a hearing, the circuit court granted Respondents' motions for summary judgment on the ground Stokes-Craven's legal malpractice claim was barred by the expiration of the statute of limitations. In so ruling, the court concluded that Dennis Craven, as agent of Stokes-Craven, had notice of the claim on August 16, 2006, the date of the jury's adverse verdict. Referencing portions of Craven's deposition testimony, the court determined that Craven's testimony as a whole indicated that he was aware that he might have a legal malpractice claim against Respondents because Craven: knew at the time of trial that counsel had not contacted and interviewed crucial witnesses prior to trial; was not shown the defendants' interrogatory responses until the day of trial; had not been prepared for cross-examination; and knew that counsel failed to settle the case despite the admission by Stokes-Craven that it "had done something wrong." The court also noted that Craven acknowledged the jury's verdict presented a "serious problem" for Stokes-Craven. Citing Epstein, the court found that Craven's knowledge of counsel's "shortcomings" and other "actionable errors" constituted evidence that Craven knew at the time of the verdict that he might have a claim against trial counsel.

         The court also held that the doctrines of equitable estoppel and equitable tolling were inapplicable. In terms of equitable estoppel, the court found "nothing in the record to support the conclusion that [Respondents] did anything to mislead Stokes-Craven" or that Robinson "engaged in any conduct to prevent Stokes-Craven from filing a malpractice action." The court further found Stokes-Craven could not invoke equitable tolling because it failed to present evidence of an "extraordinary event" beyond its control that prevented it from timely filing its legal malpractice action.

         Because the court granted Respondents' motions for summary judgment, it noted that it was unnecessary to rule on Stokes-Craven's motion to compel discovery. However, in the event the decision on summary judgment was overturned on appeal, the court proceeded to rule on the motion. Initially, the court found the correspondence between Respondents and their malpractice carrier was not discoverable as it was prepared in anticipation of or during litigation. The court further determined that Stokes-Craven had not established the need for this information. Although the court ruled Respondents' professional liability policy applications were discoverable, the court stated that any "issues of ultimate admissibility" would be left to the trial judge.

         Stokes-Craven appealed the circuit court's order and filed a motion to argue against precedent pursuant to Rule 217, SCACR. This Court granted Stokes-Craven's motion to argue against Epstein.

         II. Standard of Review

         When reviewing the grant of a summary judgment motion, the appellate court applies the same standard that governs the trial court under Rule 56(c), SCRCP, which provides that summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Rule 56(c), SCRCP; Fleming v. Rose, 350 S.C. 488, 493, 567 S.E.2d 857, 860 (2002). On appeal from an order granting summary judgment, the appellate court will review all ambiguities, conclusions, and inferences arising in and from the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party below. Willis v. Wu, 362 S.C. 146, 151, 607 S.E.2d 63, 65 (2004).

         III. Discussion

         A. Commencement of the Statute of Limitations

         Stokes-Craven asserts the circuit court erred in holding as a matter of law that the statute of limitations began to run on the date of the adverse jury verdict against Stokes-Craven. Contrary to the circuit court's characterization of Craven's testimony, Stokes-Craven notes that Craven "repeatedly testified that, at the time of the trial, he had never been sued before, had never participated in litigation, and had no idea what an attorney should or should not do to prepare a case for trial." Based on this testimony, Stokes-Craven maintains Craven did not know or could not have known that it might have a claim for legal malpractice on the date the verdict was rendered.

         Stokes-Craven further argues the court erred in relying on Epstein as it is not only factually distinguishable from the instant case but is no longer viable precedent. Stokes-Craven requests that this Court overrule its decision in Epstein and adopt a bright-line rule that the statute of limitations in a legal malpractice case does not commence until the remittitur has been issued in the underlying lawsuit.

         A claimant in a legal malpractice action must establish four elements: (1) the existence of an attorney-client relationship, (2) a breach of duty by the attorney, (3) damage to the client, and (4) proximate causation of the client's damages by the breach. Holmes v. Haynsworth, Sinkler & Boyd, P.A., 408 S.C. 620, 636, 760 S.E.2d 399, 407 (2014). Furthermore, a claimant is required to demonstrate that "he or she 'most probably would have been successful in the underlying suit if the attorney had not committed the alleged malpractice.'" Doe v. Howe, 367 S.C. 432, 442, 626 S.E.2d 25, 30 (Ct. App. 2005) (quoting Summer v. Carpenter, 328 S.C. 36, 42, 492 S.E.2d 55, 58 (1997)).

         The statute of limitations for a legal malpractice action is three years. S.C. Code Ann. § 15-3-530(5) (2005) (stating the statute of limitations for "an action for assault, battery, or any injury to the person or rights of another, not arising on contract and not enumerated by law" is three years); see Berry v. McLeod, 328 S.C. 435, 444-45, 492 S.E.2d 794, 799 (Ct. App. 1997) (concluding that section 15-3-530(5) of the South Carolina Code provides a three-year statute of limitations for legal malpractice actions). Under the discovery rule, the limitations period commences when the facts and circumstances of an injury would put a person of common knowledge and experience on notice that some claim against another party might exist. Burgess v. Am. Cancer Soc'y, SC Div., Inc., 300 S.C. 182, 186, 386 S.E.2d 798, 800 (Ct. App. 1989); see S.C. Code Ann. § 15-3-535 (2005) ("[A]ll actions initiated under Section 15-3-530(5) must be commenced within three years after the person knew or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known that he had a cause of action."). "This standard as to when the limitations period begins to run is objective rather than subjective." Burgess, 300 S.C. at 186, 386 S.E.2d at 800. "Therefore, the statutory period of limitations begins to run when a person could or should have known, through the exercise of reasonable diligence, that a cause of action might exist in his or her favor, rather than when a person obtains actual knowledge of either the potential claim or of the facts giving rise thereto." Id.

         "Statutes of limitations are not simply technicalities." Kelly v. Logan, Jolley & Smith, L.L.P., 383 S.C. 626, 632, 682 S.E.2d 1, 4 (Ct. App. 2009). "On the contrary, they have long been respected as fundamental to a well-ordered judicial system." Id. "Statutes of limitations embody important public policy concerns as they stimulate activity, punish negligence, and promote repose by giving security and stability to human affairs." Id. "One purpose of a statute of limitations is to relieve the courts of the burden of trying stale claims when a plaintiff has slept on his or her rights." Id. (citations omitted). "Another purpose of a statute of limitations is to protect potential defendants from ...

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