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Smith v. Tiffany

Supreme Court of South Carolina

April 26, 2017

Walter Smith, Respondent,
Norman K. Tiffany, Individually, Brown Trucking Company and Brown Integrated Logistics, Appellants, and Brown Trucking Company and Brown Integrated Logistics, Appellants,
Corbett James Mizzell, III, Respondent. Appellate Case No. 2015-001159

          Heard May 18, 2016

         Appeal from Saluda County R. Lawton McIntosh, Circuit Court Judge

          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.


         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.


         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.


         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-"defendants" and "potential tortfeasors"-in section 15-38-15 was not deliberate or that those words mean anything other than what they say. See Hodges, 341 S.C. at 87, 533 S.E.2d at 582 ("If the legislature's intent is clearly apparent from the statutory language, a court may not embark upon a search for it outside the statute." (citing Abell v. Bell, 229 S.C. 1, 91 S.E.2d 548 (1956))); see also CFRE, LLC v. Greenville Cty. Assessor, 395 S.C. 67, 74, 716 S.E.2d 877, 881 (2011) ("[T]he words found in the statute [must be given] their 'plain and ordinary meaning '" and "if the words are unambiguous, we must apply their literal meaning." (quoting Sloan v. Hardee, 371 S.C. 495, 498, 640 S.E.2d 457, 459 (2007))).

         We acknowledge that achieving a more fair apportionment of damages among joint tortfeasors was one of the policy goals underlying the legislature's enactment of the Act. We disagree that fair apportionment was the only underlying policy goal. Indeed, when the Act is read as a whole, with each section and subsection given effect, it is apparent that the legislature was not solely attempting to protect nonsettling defendants. Rather, the legislature was attempting to strike a fair balance for all involved-plaintiffs and defendants-and to do so in a way that promotes and fosters settlements. See Riley v. Ford Motor Co., 414 S.C. 185, 196, 777 S.E.2d 824, 830 (2015) ("[T]he Act represents the Legislature's determination of the proper balance between preventing double-recovery and South Carolina's 'strong public policy favoring the settlement of disputes.'" (quoting Chester v. S.C. Dep't of Pub. Safety, 388 S.C. 343, 346, 698 S.E.2d 559, 560 (2010))); Centex Int'l, Inc. v. S.C. Dep't of Revenue, 406 S.C. 132, 139, 750 S.E.2d 65, 69 (2013) ("'[T]he statute must be read as a whole and sections which are a part of the same general statutory law must be construed together and each one given effect.'" (quoting S.C. State Ports Auth. v. Jasper County, 368 S.C. 388, 398, 629 S.E.2d 624, 629 (2006))); see also S.C. Code Ann. § 15-38-50(2) (2005 & Supp. 2016) (providing that a settling tortfeasor, by virtue of his good-faith settlement with the claimant, is not liable for contribution to any other tortfeasor).

         Specifically, the Act sets forth in section 15-38-15(B) and (C) a detailed method for apportioning fault "among defendants." Further, and perhaps in recognition of the perceived inequity complained of by Appellants, the General Assembly took steps to protect nonsettling defendants by codifying a nonsettling defendant's right to argue the so-called empty chair defense in subsection (D) and, in subsection (E), the right to offset the value of any settlement received prior to the verdict-a right which arises by operation of law and is not within the discretion of the courts. See Smith v. Widener, 397 S.C. 468, 472, 724 S.E.2d 188, 190 (Ct. App. 2012) (holding a nonsettling defendant's right to setoff arises by operation of law, and it is not within the discretion of the trial court to apply setoff). Thus, a critical feature of the statute is the codification of the empty chair defense-a defendant "retain[s] the right to assert another potential tortfeasor, whether a party or not, contributed to the alleged injury or damages"-which necessarily contemplates lawsuits in which an allegedly culpable person or entity is not a party to the litigation (hence the chair in question being "empty").[2]

         When the statutory provisions are construed as a whole-the legislature's use of the differing terms "defendants" in subsections (B) and (C) and "potential tortfeasor, whether or not a party" in subsection (D) with the mandatory offset in subsection (E)-the clear intent of the General Assembly is not ambiguous and does not allow for the result sought by Appellants. [3] Rather, were we to accept Appellants' argument, and vary from the provisions of the Act in this case to purportedly enhance the propsects of a more equitable result in this case, we would create a host of concerns, for Appellant's desired result would require (1) a plaintiff to maintain a suit against someone with whom he has already settled; (2) a settling defendant to defend a lawsuit he has already settled; (3) this Court to ignore the legislature's express acknowledgement in section 15-38-15(D) that not all potential tortfeasors will necessarily be parties to the suit; and (4) would create a conflict with other provisions of the Act, including sections 15-38-15(E) and 15-30-50(1), which address a nonsettling defendant's right to setoff. The most prominent obstacle to Appellants' approach is separation of powers, for we must defer to the will of the legislature as expressed in the Act. If the policy balance struck by the legislature in Act is to be changed, that prerogative lies exclusively within the province of the Legislative Branch.


         While we have not had occasion to address the precise question prior to today, today's result is dictated by the Act. The General Assembly in the Act struck the balance among competing policy concerns it deemed appropriate. We defer to the policy decisions of the General Assembly. For example, in Riley v. Ford Motor Co., we noted that a nonsettling defendant may not "fashion[] and ultimately extract[] a benefit from the decisions of those who do [settle]." 414 S.C. at 197, 777 S.E.2d at 831 (explaining "[i]f the position of a nonsettling defendant is worsened by the terms of a settlement, this is the consequence of a refusal to settle").

         If our mission were simply to achieve equity on a case by case basis, we would not necessarily disagree with Appellants and the dissent. But wherever the balance is struck, one can easily imagine scenarios where the result may be inequitable. The point remains-absent a constitutional prohibition, where the General Assembly has spoken and established policy, separation of powers demands that courts honor the legislative policy determination. Moreover, Appellants' proposed result, advanced by the dissent, would turn the Act on its head to benefit nonsettling defendants at the expense of plaintiffs and those who do settle. That is not the balance the General Assembly struck in the Act. In honoring separation of powers, we adhere to the principle that a court must not reject the legislature's policy determinations merely because the court may prefer what it believes is a more equitable result.

         As explained by this Court in Machin v. Carus Corp., ___ S.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___(2017), a plain reading of the words "defendant" and "defendants" in section 15-38-15(C) reveals the legislature's intent to allow "only a 'defendant' or 'defendants' to be listed on the jury form and included in the allocation of fault." Id. at ___, ___S.E.2d at ___. In reaching this conclusion, we examined the recent decision of Walker v. Tensor Machinery Ltd., 779 S.E.2d 651 (Ga. 2015), in which the Supreme Court of Georgia held that a jury may assess a percentage of fault to an immune nonparty. Critical to the Walker analysis was the language in the relevant Georgia statute, which provides "[i]n assessing percentages of fault, the trier of fact shall consider the fault of all persons or entities who contributed to the alleged injury or damages, regardless of whether the person or entity was, or could have been, named as a party to the suit." Georgia Code Ann. § 51-12-33(c) (emphasis added). In light of this language, as we observed in Machin, the result in Walker is understandable based on the Georgia statute. However, in stark contrast to the Georgia statute, our legislature determined that fault may be allocated only to "the plaintiff and to the defendants" and requires that "the total of the percentages of fault attributed to the plaintiff and to the defendants must be one hundred percent." S.C. Code Ann. § 15-38-15(C)(3). Thus, guided by the language of the Act and with respect for the legislature's prerogative, this Court held that fault may not be apportioned to an immune nonparty under the Act. Machin, ___ S.C. at ___, ___S.E.2d at ___.


         And finally, we reject the implication that a rule of civil procedure somehow trumps the Act. Appellants rely on Rules 14 and 19, SCRCP, to support the addition of Mizzell to the underlying litigation and inclusion on the verdict form.

         Rule 14 provides "a defending party, as a third-party plaintiff, may cause a summons and complaint to be served upon a person not a party to the action who is or may be liable to him for all or part of the plaintiff's claim against him." Rule 14(a), SCRCP (emphasis added). Consequently, a non-party is subject to impleader only if there is a basis to assert he is liable to the named defendant(s) for all or part of the plaintiff's claim. The question becomes: is Mizzell subject to liability to Appellants for all or part of Smith's claim against Appellants? Under these circumstances, the legislature has answered the question in the negative.

         The analysis is straightforward. Mizzell is not subject to liability for any part of Smith's claims based on the covenant not to execute he obtained from Smith. The covenant not to execute included language protecting Mizzell from any further liability to Smith in excess of the agreed-upon settlement amount. Even though, by its terms, a covenant not to execute discharges the settling tortfeasor's liability only as to the plaintiff, in section 15-38-50 the legislature expanded the scope of a settling tortfeasor's immunity to include protection from liability to nonsettling tortfeasors. Specifically, section 15-38-50 provides that "[w]hen a release or covenant not to sue or not to enforce judgment is given in good faith to one of two or more persons liable in tort for the same injury . . . it discharges the tortfeasor to whom it is given from all liability for contribution to any other tortfeasor" (emphasis added). Thus, by the terms of the covenant not to execute, Mizzell has no additional liability to Smith, and Mizzell is also immune from any liability to non-settling alleged tortfeasors Tiffany, Brown Trucking, and Brown Logistics by virtue of section 15-38-50. Absent any potential liability to either the plaintiff or to nonsettling defendants, impleader ...

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