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Ex parte The Travelers Home And Marine Insurance Co.

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

July 17, 2019

Ex parte: The Travelers Home and Marine Insurance Company, Appellant,
v.
Cameron Thomas Stringfellow, Defendant. In Re: William Gresham as Personal Representative of the Estate of John Corey Stringfellow, Respondent, Appellate Case No. 2017-001083

          Submitted June 3, 2019

          Appeal From Richland County Clifton Newman, Circuit Court Judge

          William Pearce Davis and Susan Drake DuBose, both of Baker Ravenel & Bender, LLP, of Columbia, and Carrie Hailman O'Brien, of Walker Allen Grice Ammons & Foy, LLP, of Charlotte, North Carolina, all for Appellant.

          Margaret Nicole Fox and James Mixon Griffin, both of Griffin Davis, of Columbia, for Respondent.

          HILL, J.

         This appeal follows the trial of a wrongful death and survival action. Sixteen-year-old John Corey Stringfellow (Corey) died from injuries sustained as a passenger in a family car being driven by his older brother, Cameron. Evidence at trial indicated that, while their parents were out of town, Corey and Cameron left home around 1:00 a.m. to obtain marijuana from a friend's house. Both had smoked marijuana earlier, and Cameron-set to graduate from high school the next week- had been drinking alcohol and had taken Xanax. On the way back home, Cameron began speeding through their residential neighborhood, struck a parked car, and then a tree, resulting in Corey's death. It was estimated they had been traveling in excess of ninety miles-per-hour. Toxicology reports revealed Cameron's blood alcohol level to be 0.186. Corey had no trace of alcohol in his system, but both brothers had significant levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-the active ingredient in marijuana.

         Cameron later pled guilty to manslaughter and driving under the influence. Corey's Estate brought this action against Cameron. At trial, the Stringfellow's underinsured motorist carrier, The Travelers Home and Marine Insurance Company (Travelers), assumed Cameron's defense, alleging Corey was comparatively negligent and engaged in a joint enterprise with Cameron.

         The trial court granted the Estate's motion for a directed verdict on the ground that Cameron's conduct was reckless and a proximate cause of Corey's death. The only issue left for the jury was whether Corey had been comparatively negligent.

         The jury found Corey 51% negligent, barring his Estate from any recovery. Immediately after the verdict was published-and while the jury was still in the jury box-the trial court asked for any post-trial motions. The Estate moved for, among other things, a new trial under the thirteenth juror doctrine. The trial court took the motion under advisement and released the jury. After a hearing several weeks later on the Estate's motion, the trial court invoked the thirteenth juror doctrine and granted the motion for a new trial on the wrongful death portion of the Estate's claim. Travelers now appeals.

         I.

         Travelers first asks us to deem the Estate's new trial motion void because it was made before the jury was discharged. Travelers focuses on the following language of Rule 59(b) of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure (SCRCP): "The motion for a new trial shall be made promptly after the jury is discharged, or in the discretion of the court not later than 10 days thereafter." Rule 59(b), SCRCP (emphasis added). Travelers insists the Estate's motion was untimely because it was made before the jury's discharge and no motion was made after the jury was discharged. The trial court rejected Travelers' interpretation, and so do we.

         Interpretation of a rule is a question of law we review de novo. Our role in interpreting a statute or court rule is to determine what the legislature intended to accomplish. Hodges v. Rainey, 341 S.C. 79, 85, 533 S.E.2d 578, 581 (2000). The best evidence of this intent is the words used, and often what the legislature meant is readily revealed by the plain meaning of those words. See Smith v. Tiffany, 419 S.C. 548, 555-56, 799 S.E.2d 479, 483 (2017). But meaning can be obscured rather than revealed if words are isolated and cut off from context. We are interpreting a rule, not a dictionary entry, and how words are arranged often determines meaning; as Mark Twain explained, it's "the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."

         According to Travelers, the meaning of Rule 59 is plain: a motion for new trial is a nullity unless it is made promptly after the jury is discharged or-if the judge allows-not later than ten days after the jury is discharged. In Travelers' view, any motion made outside these points has no effect. See Boone v. Goodwin, 314 S.C. 374, 376, 444 S.E.2d 524, 525 (1994) ("We hold a party must make a motion for a new trial promptly after the jury is discharged or request ten days within which to make the motion.").

         We decline to parse the language of Rule 59 in the manner Travelers requests. The purpose of the rule is to promote finality of judgments by requiring parties to move for a new trial promptly after they learn of an adverse verdict. Counting a party's new trial motion made in the brief period between return of the verdict and the ...


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