Court Denies Post-Trial Appeals of Control and Valve Defendants

Court of Appeals of South Carolina, September 1, 2021

The plaintiffs filed this action against numerous defendants, including Fisher Controls International LLC and Crosby Valve, LLC, alleging that the husband plaintiff was exposed to asbestos emanating from the defendants’ products. The plaintiffs alleged, inter alia, that (1) the defendants were strictly liable for the harm caused to the plaintiff by their products because the lack of an adequate warning or adequate use instructions rendered the design of these products defective and dangerous; (2) the defendants were negligent in the design of their products and in failing to warn of the harm resulting from the use of their products; and (3) the defendants breached their implied warranties that their products were of good and merchantable quality and fit for their intended use. Prior to trial, the plaintiffs settled their claims against the co-defendants.

A trial was held on the paintiffs’ claims against Fisher Controls and Crosby Valve, and the jury awarded $200,000 in actual damages to the husband plaintiff for his negligence and breach of warranty claims and $100,000 in actual damages to the wife plaintiff for her loss of consortium claim. The circuit court later granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial nisi additur and increased the awards to $1,580,000 and $290,000, respectively.

The circuit court also granted, in part, the defendants’ motion for a setoff of the plaintiffs’ pre-trial settlement proceeds against the increased verdicts. The circuit court accepted the plaintiffs’ stated allocation of the proceeds, which assigned one-third to the husband’s claims; one-third to the wife’s claims; and one-third for a future wrongful death claim. As to the portion of proceeds the plaintiffs had allocated to a future wrongful death claim, the circuit court denied setoff. The circuit court also denied the defendants’ motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) and issued a separate written order memorializing its pre-trial denial of the defendants’ motion to quash the plaintiffs’ trial subpoenas. The defendants later filed a motion for reconsideration, which the circuit court denied. This appeal followed.

A motion for a JNOV is essentially a renewal of a directed verdict motion, and the circuit court is required to view the evidence and the inferences that reasonably can be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. A jury verdict must be upheld unless no evidence reasonably supports the jury’s findings. Curcio v. Caterpillar, Inc., 355 S.C. 316, 320, 585 S.E.2d 272, 274 (2003). The defendants challenge the circuit court’s denial of their motion for a JNOV on the following grounds: (1) there was no reliable evidence that the plaintiff’s workplace exposure to their products proximately caused his mesothelioma; (2) the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of proof on their claims that were based on a failure to warn; (3) the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of proving a design defect for purposes of their negligence and implied warranty claims; and (4) the plaintiffs failed to show that the defendants deviated from the standard of care. The court considered each of the defendants’ arguments in turn, disagreeing with each.

The defendants also challenged the circuit court’s granting of the plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial nisi additur on the ground that the court based its ruling on speculation and did not articulate compelling reasons for increasing the damages awards. The appellate court once again disagreed. “When the verdict indicates that the jury was unduly liberal or conservative in its view of the damages, the [circuit court] alone has the power to [alter] the verdict by the granting of a new trial nisi.” Riley v. Ford Motor Co., 414 S.C. 185, 192, 777 S.E.2d 824, 828 (2015) (quoting Allstate Ins. Co. v. Durham, 314 S.C. 529, 531, 431 S.E.2d 557, 558 (1993)). Motions for a new trial nisi are addressed to the sound discretion of the circuit court. Riley, 414 S.C. at 192, 777 S.E.2d at 828 (quoting Graham v. Whitaker, 282 S.C. 393, 401, 321 S.E.2d 40, 45 (1984)). However, the circuit court’s exercise of discretion “is not absolute[,] and it is the duty of this [c]ourt in a proper case to review and determine whether there has been an abuse of discretion amounting to error of law.” Id. at 192-93, 777 S.E.2d at 828-29 (quoting Graham, 282 S.C. at 401-02, 321 S.E.2d at 45); see also Sapp v. Wheeler, 402 S.C. 502, 512, 741 S.E.2d 565, 571 (Ct. App. 2013) ‘Compelling reasons’ must be given to justify the circuit court invading the jury’s province in this manner. Riley, 414 S.C. at 193, 777 S.E.2d at 829. However, great deference is given to the circuit court by the appellate court. Vinson v. Hartley, 324 S.C. 389, 406, 477 S.E.2d 715, 723 (Ct. App. 1996).

The appellate court considered the verdicts and the evidence at trial and determined that the circuit court possessed concrete information from the evidence on which it could base its observation about the jury’s award of medical costs. Further, after the circuit court observed the jury’s award regarding medical costs, the circuit court recited applicable law regarding damages and laid out the evidence supporting an increased verdict, reaching the conclusion that the evidence supported damages for medical expenses, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, mental anguish, and future damages and that “[t]he jury’s award of only $200,000 was not sufficient to make [the husband plaintiff] whole for the magnitude of his losses.” Cf. Bailey v. Peacock, 318 S.C. 13, 14, 455 S.E.2d 690, 692 (1995). Because the circuit court’s determination that the jury’s verdict was inadequate in light of the evidence presented at trial was not wholly unsupported by the evidence or controlled by error of law, the appellate court did not have grounds to overturn the circuit court’s finding.

The defendants also argued that the circuit court improperly relied on the plaintiffs’ evidence regarding medical expenses, alleging that that evidence was speculative. However, the court disagreed, finding that the doctor’s testimony regarding the damages was properly based on his review of the plaintiff’s medical bills and his decades of experience and expertise. Similarly, the court held that the circuit court properly considered the evidence relating to the non-economic damages and loss of consortium in granting Plaintiffs’ motion for new trial nisi additur.

Prior to trial, the plaintiffs received $2,270,000 in settlement proceeds from the co-defendants. Pursuant to South Carolina common law, setoffs prevent injured party from obtaining duplicate recovery for their damages. The defendants contend the circuit court erred by accepting the plaintiffs’ allocation of one-third of the total proceeds to a “future wrongful death claim,” and argue that in addition to the partial set-off the court awarded them for the husband’s claims ($756,667) against the damages awarded to him, they were entitled to a set-off of the one-third the plaintiffs’ allocated for future claims. The appellate court disagreed. A non-settling defendant “is entitled to credit for the amount paid by another defendant who settles for the same cause of action.” Riley, 414 S.C. at 195, 777 S.E.2d at 830 (emphasis added).

The plaintiffs advised the circuit court that they had allocated the settlement proceeds one-third each to the husband’s claims, the wife’s claims, and for the release of future claims, and the circuit court confirmed that the plaintiffs did release the settling defendants from future claims. The circuit court concluded that the plaintiffs’ allocation of the settlement proceeds was reasonable and declined to apply a setoff for the amount allocated to future claims related to plaintiff’s mesothelioma, because any such future claims for which the settling defendants were released were distinct from the personal injury and loss of consortium claims that were tried to verdict.

The defendants argue that the circuit court should not have accepted the plaintiffs’ allocation of one-third of the proceeds to a future wrongful death claim, alleging that that claim is barred as a matter of law by the releases. The appellate court disagreed, finding that a settling defendant has a right to obtain a release of future wrongful death claims as well as personal injury claims, and that the plaintiffs’ release of all past and future claims against the settling defendants should not affect the allocation of the settlement proceeds among the various claims that were released. Even though there was a “slight overlap in damages” because the circuit court instructed the jury that the plaintiff may recover for those future damages and the circuit court invoked the husband plaintiff’s expected death in justifying its increase in the husband and wife’s damage awards, this did not rise to the level of an improper double recovery, and the appellate court affirmed the circuit court’s setoff ruling.

The defendants also challenge the circuit court’s denial of their respective motions to quash subpoenas requiring their corporate representatives to appear and testify at trial, arguing that Rule 45, SCRCP, does not authorize courts to exercise subpoena power over out-of-state parties and the subpoenas were not properly served on them. After examining this state statute and its history, the appellate court determined that the circuit court did have subpoena power over the out-of-state parties, and that the subpoenas were properly served by a commercial delivery service upon the parties’ counsel pursuant to South Carolina rules.

Ultimately, the appellate court affirmed the circuit court’s orders denying the defendants’ motion to quash, denying their JNOV motion, granting the plaintiffs’ motion for new trial nisi additur, and granting in part the defendants’ motion for set-off.

Read the full decision here.