South Carolina Uniform Electronic Transactions Act
TITLE 26. NOTARIES PUBLIC AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
(B) Consistent with the provisions of the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, 15 U.S.C. Section 7002(a), this chapter provides alternative procedures or requirements for the use of electronic records to establish the legal effect or validity of records in electronic transactions.
As used in this chapter:
(1) “Agreement” means the bargain of the parties in fact, as found in their language or inferred from other circumstances and from rules, regulations, and procedures giving the effect of agreements under law otherwise applicable to a particular transaction.
(2) “Automated transaction” means a transaction conducted or performed, in whole or in part, by electronic means or electronic records, in which the acts or records of any of the parties are not reviewed by an individual in the ordinary course in forming a contract, performing under an existing contract, or fulfilling an obligation required by the transaction.
(3) “Computer program” means a set of statements or instructions used directly or indirectly in an information processing system to bring about a certain result.
(4) “Contract” means the total legal obligation resulting from the agreement of the parties as affected by this chapter and other applicable law.
(5) “Electronic” means relating to technology having electrical, digital, magnetic, wireless, optical, electromagnetic, or similar capabilities.
(6) “Electronic agent” means a computer program or an electronic or other automated means used independently to initiate an action or respond to electronic records or performances in whole or in part, without review or action by an individual.
(7) “Electronic record” means a record created, generated, sent, communicated, received, or stored by electronic means.
(8) “Electronic signature” means an electronic sound, symbol, or process attached to or logically associated with a record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record.
(9) “Governmental agency” means an executive, legislative, or judicial agency, department, board, commission, authority, institution, or instrumentality of the federal government or of a state or of a county, municipality, or other political subdivision of a state.
(10) “Individual” means a single natural person; one human being.
(11) “Information” means data, text, images, sounds, codes, computer programs, software, databases, or other forms for the communication or reception of knowledge.
(12) “Information processing system” means an electronic system for creating, generating, sending, receiving, storing, displaying, or processing information.
(13) “Person” means an individual, corporation, business trust, estate, trust, partnership, limited liability company, association, joint venture, governmental agency, public corporation, or other legal or commercial entity.
(14) “Record” means information that is inscribed on a tangible medium or that is stored in an electronic or other medium and is retrievable in perceivable form.
(15) “Security procedure” means a procedure employed for the purpose of verifying that an electronic signature, record, or performance is that of a specific person or for detecting changes or errors in the information in an electronic record. The term includes a procedure that requires the use of algorithms or other codes, identifying words or numbers, encryption, or callback or other acknowledgment procedures.
(16) “State” means a state of the United States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the United States Virgin Islands, or any territory or insular possession subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. The term includes an Indian tribe or band, or Alaskan native village, which is recognized by federal law or formally acknowledged by a state.
(18) “United States Postal Service Electronic Postmark” means an electronic service provided by the United States Postal Service that provides evidentiary proof that an electronic document existed in a certain form at a certain time and the electronic document was opened or the contents of the electronic document were displayed at a time and date documented by the United States Post Office.
(B) This chapter does not apply to a transaction:
(1) in connection with an order for prescription drugs; or
(2) to the extent the transaction is governed by:
(a) a law governing the creation and execution of wills, codicils, or testamentary trusts;
(c) the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, 114 Stat. 464, 15 U.S.C. at 7001 et seq., but it is not intended to limit, modify, or supersede Section 101(c) of the act, and to the extent that the notices exempted below are excluded from the scope of the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, 114 Stat. 464, 15 U.S.C. at 7003, this chapter of Title 26 does not apply to a notice required by law regarding:
(i) the cancellation or termination of utility services (including water, heat, and power);
(ii) default, acceleration, repossession, foreclosure, eviction, or the right to cure under a credit agreement secured by a primary residence of an individual or a rental agreement for a primary residence of an individual;
(iii) the cancellation or termination of health insurance or benefits or life insurance benefits, excluding annuities;
(iv) the recall of a product or material failure of a product, that risks endangering health or safety; or
(v) a law requiring a document to accompany any transportation or handling of hazardous materials, pesticides, or other toxic or dangerous materials.
(C) This chapter applies to an electronic record or electronic signature otherwise excluded from the application of the chapter pursuant to subsection (B) to the extent it is governed by a law other than those specified in subsection (B).
This chapter applies to an electronic record or electronic signature created, generated, sent, communicated, received, or stored on or after the effective date of this chapter.
(A) This chapter does not require a record or signature to be created, generated, sent, communicated, received, stored, or otherwise processed or used by electronic means or in electronic form.
(B) This chapter applies only to transactions between parties who agree to conduct transactions by electronic means. Whether the parties agree to conduct a transaction by electronic means is determined from the context and surrounding circumstances, including the conduct of the parties.
(C) A party that agrees to conduct a transaction by electronic means may refuse to conduct other transactions by electronic means. This right of refusal shall not be waived by agreement.
(D) Except as otherwise provided in this chapter, the effect of its provisions may be varied by agreement. The presence in certain provisions of this chapter of the words “unless otherwise agreed”, or words of similar import, does not imply that the effect of other provisions may not be varied by agreement.
(E) Whether an electronic record or electronic signature has legal consequences is determined by this chapter and other applicable laws.
This chapter must be construed and applied to:
(1) facilitate electronic transactions consistent with other applicable law;
(2) be consistent with reasonable practice concerning electronic transactions and with continued expansion of those practices; and
(3) effectuate its general purpose to make uniform the law with respect to the subject of this chapter among states enacting it.
(A) A record or signature must not be denied legal effect or enforceability solely because it is in electronic form.
(B) A contract must not be denied legal effect or enforceability solely because an electronic record is used in its formation.
(C) An electronic record satisfies a law requiring a record to be in writing.
(D) An electronic signature satisfies a law requiring a signature.
(A) If parties agree to conduct a transaction by electronic means and a law requires a person to provide, send, or deliver information in writing to another person, the requirement is satisfied if the information is provided, sent, or delivered in an electronic record capable of retention by the recipient at the time of receipt. An electronic record is not capable of retention by the recipient if the sender or its information processing system inhibits the ability of the recipient to print or store the electronic record.
(B) If another provision of law requires a record to be posed or displayed in a certain manner, be sent, communicated, or transmitted by a specified method, or contain information formatted in a certain manner, the record must:
(1) be posted or displayed in the manner specified in the other law;
(2) be sent, communicated, or transmitted by the method specified in the other law, except as otherwise provided in subsection (D)(2); and
(3) contain the information formatted in the manner specified in the other law.
(C) The electronic record is not enforceable against the recipient if a sender inhibits the ability of a recipient to store or print an electronic record.
(D) The requirements of this section shall not be varied by agreement, except that:
(1) to the extent a law other than this chapter requires information to be provided, sent, or delivered in writing but permits that requirement to be varied by agreement, the requirement pursuant to subsection (A) that the information be in the form of an electronic record capable of retention also may be varied by agreement; and
(2) a requirement pursuant to a law other than this chapter to send, communicate, or transmit a record by first-class mail, postage prepaid, or regular United States mail, may be varied by agreement to the extent permitted by the other law.
(A) An electronic record or electronic signature is attributable to a person if it is the act of the person. The act of the person may be shown in any manner, including a showing of the efficacy of a security procedure applied to determine the person to which the electronic record or electronic signature was attributable.
(B) The effect of an electronic record or electronic signature attributed to a person pursuant to subsection (A) is determined from the context and surrounding circumstances at the time of its creation, execution, or adoption, including the parties’ agreement, if any, and as otherwise provided by law.
(A) If a change or error occurs in the transmission of an electronic record between parties to a transaction:
(1) the conforming party may avoid the effect of the changed or erroneous electronic record, if the parties have agreed to use a security procedure to detect changes or errors and one party has conformed to the procedure but the other party has not and the nonconforming party would have detected the change or error had he also conformed;
(2) an individual may avoid the effect of an electronic record that resulted from an error made by the individual in dealing with the electronic agent of another person if the electronic agent did not provide an opportunity for the prevention or correction of the error and, at the time the individual learns of the error, the individual:
(a) promptly notifies the other person of the error and that the individual did not intend to be bound by the electronic record received by the other person;
(b) takes reasonable steps, including steps that conform to the reasonable instructions of the other person, to return or destroy, as instructed, the consideration received as a result of the erroneous electronic record; and
(c) has not used or received any benefit or value from the consideration received from the other person.
(B) If subsection (A) does not apply, the change or error has the effect provided by other law, including the law of mistake, and the parties’ contract, if any.
(C) The provisions of subsections (A)(2) and (B) shall not be varied by agreement.
A law requiring a signature or record to be notarized, acknowledged, verified, or made under oath is satisfied if the electronic signature of the person authorized to perform those acts, together with all other information required to be included by other applicable law, is attached to or logically associated with the signature or record.
(A) A law requiring a record to be retained is satisfied by retaining an electronic record of the information that:
(1) accurately reflects the information in the record after it was first generated in its final form as an electronic record or otherwise; and
(2) remains accessible for later reference.
(B) A requirement to retain a record in accordance with subsection (A) does not apply to information whose only purpose is to enable the record to be sent, communicated, or received.
(C) A person may satisfy subsection (A) by using the services of another person if the requirements of that subsection are satisfied otherwise.
(D) A law requiring a record to be presented or retained in its original form, or providing consequences if the record is not presented or retained in its original form, is satisfied by an electronic record retained in accordance with subsection (A).
(E) A law requiring retention of a check is satisfied by retention of an electronic record of the information on the front and back of the check in accordance with subsection (A).
(F) A record retained as an electronic record in accordance with subsection (A) satisfies a law requiring a person to retain a record for evidentiary, audit, or like purposes, unless a law enacted after the effective date of this chapter specifically prohibits the use of an electronic record for the specified purpose.
(G) This section does not preclude a governmental agency of this State from specifying additional requirements for the retention of a record subject to the agency’s jurisdiction.
Evidence of a record or signature may not be excluded in a proceeding solely because the record or signature is in electronic form.
In an automated transaction:
(1) a contract may be formed by the interaction of electronic agents of the parties, even if an individual was not aware of or reviewed the electronic agents’ actions or the resulting terms and agreements;
(2) a contract may be formed by the interaction of an electronic agent and an individual, acting on the individual’s own behalf or for another person, including by an interaction in which the individual performs actions that the individual is free to refuse to perform and which the individual knows or has reason to know will cause the electronic agent to complete the transaction or performance; and
(3) the terms of the contract are determined by the substantive law applicable to it.
(A) Unless otherwise agreed between the sender and the recipient, an electronic record is sent when it:
(1) is addressed properly or otherwise directed properly to an information processing system that the recipient has designated or uses for the purpose of receiving electronic records or information of the type sent and from which the recipient is able to retrieve the electronic record;
(2) is in a form capable of being processed by that system; and
(3) enters an information processing system outside the control of the sender or of a person that sent the electronic record on behalf of the sender or enters a region of the information processing system designated or used by the recipient and under the control of the recipient.
(B) Unless otherwise agreed between a sender and the recipient, an electronic record is received when it:
(1) enters an information processing system that the recipient has designated or uses for the purpose of receiving electronic records or information of the type sent and from which the recipient is able to retrieve the electronic record; and
(2) is in a form capable of being processed by that system.
(C) Subsection (B) applies even if the place the information processing system is located is different from the place the electronic record is considered to be received pursuant to subsection (D).
(D) Unless otherwise expressly provided in the electronic record or agreed between the sender and the recipient, an electronic record is considered to be sent from the sender’s place of business and to be received at the recipient’s place of business. For purposes of this subsection, the place of business is:
(1) the place having the closest relationship to the underlying transaction, if the sender or recipient has more than one place of business; and
(2) the sender’s or recipient’s residence, if the sender or the recipient does not have a place of business.
(E) An electronic record is received pursuant to subsection (B) even if an individual is not aware of its receipt.
(F) Receipt of an electronic acknowledgment from an information processing system described in subsection (B) establishes that a record was received but is not sufficient to establish that the content sent corresponds to the content received.
(G) If a person is aware that an electronic record purportedly sent pursuant to subsection (A), or purportedly received pursuant to subsection (B), was not actually sent or received, the legal effect of the sending or receipt is determined by other applicable law. Except to the extent permitted by the other law, the requirements of this subsection shall not be varied by agreement.
(A) In this section, “transferable record” means an electronic record that:
(1) would be a negotiable instrument under Chapter 3 of Title 36 or a document of title under Chapter 7 of Title 36 if the electronic record were in writing; and
(2) the issuer of the electronic record expressly has agreed is a transferable record.
(B) A person has control of a transferable record if a system employed for evidencing the transfer of interests in the transferable record reliably establishes that person as the person to which the transferable record was issued or transferred.
(C) A system satisfies subsection (B), and a person is considered to have control of a transferable record, if the transferable record is created, stored, and assigned in such a manner that:
(1) there exists a single authoritative copy of the transferable record that is unique, identifiable, and, except as otherwise provided in items (4), (5), and (6), unalterable;
(2) the authoritative copy identifies the person asserting control as the person to which the transferable record was:
(a) issued; or
(b) most recently transferred, if the authoritative copy indicates that the transferable record has been transferred;
(3) the authoritative copy is communicated to and maintained by the person asserting control or its designated custodian;
(4) copies or revisions that add or change an identified assignee of the authoritative copy are made only with the consent of the person asserting control;
(5) each copy of the authoritative copy and a copy of a copy are readily identifiable as copies that are not the authoritative copy; and
(6) a revision of the authoritative copy is readily identifiable as authorized or unauthorized.
(D) Except as otherwise agreed, a person having control of a transferable record is the holder, as defined in Section 36-1-201(20), of the transferable record and has the same rights and defenses as a holder of an equivalent record or writing pursuant to Title 36, including the rights and defenses of a holder in due course, a holder to which a negotiable document of title has been duly negotiated, or a purchaser, respectively if the applicable statutory requirements pursuant to Section 36-3-302, 36-7-501, or 36-9-308 are satisfied. Delivery, possession, and endorsement are not required to obtain or exercise the rights pursuant to this subsection.
(E) Except as otherwise agreed, an obligor under a transferable record has the same rights and defenses as an equivalent obligor under equivalent records or writings pursuant to Title 36.
(F) The person seeking to enforce the transferable record shall provide, upon request, reasonable proof that he is in control of the transferable record. Proof may include access to the authoritative copy of the transferable record and related business records sufficient to review the terms of the transferable record and to establish the identity of the person having control of the transferable record.
Each governmental agency of this State shall determine if, and the extent to which, it will create and retain electronic records and convert written records to electronic records.
(A) Each governmental agency of this State shall determine if, and the extent to which, it will send and accept electronic records and electronic signatures to and from other persons and otherwise create, generate, communicate, store, process, use, and rely upon electronic records and electronic signatures.
(B) To the extent that a governmental agency uses electronic records and electronic signatures pursuant to subsection (A), the governmental agency, in consultation with the South Carolina State Budget and Control Board, giving due consideration to security, may specify:
(1) the manner and format in which the electronic records must be created, generated, sent, communicated, received, and stored and the systems established for those purposes;
(2) if electronic records must be signed by electronic means, the type of electronic signature required, the manner and format in which the electronic signature must be affixed to the electronic record, and the identity of, or criteria that must be met by, a third party used by a person filing a document to facilitate the process;
(3) control processes and procedures appropriate to ensure adequate preservation, disposition, integrity, security, confidentiality, and auditability of electronic records; and
(4) other attributes required for electronic records which are specified for corresponding nonelectronic records or reasonably necessary under the circumstances.
(C) Except as otherwise provided in Section 26-6-120, this chapter does not require a governmental agency of this State to use or permit the use of electronic records or electronic signatures.
(A) The South Carolina State Budget and Control Board shall adopt standards to coordinate, create, implement, and facilitate the use of common approaches and technical infrastructure, as appropriate, to enhance the utilization of electronic records, electronic signatures, and security procedures by and for public entities of the State. Local political subdivisions may consent to be governed by these standards.
(B) The Secretary of State may develop, implement, and facilitate the use of model procedures for the use of electronic records, electronic signatures, and security procedures for all other purposes, including private commercial transactions and contracts. The Secretary of State also may promulgate regulations as to methods, means, and standards for secure electronic transactions including administration by the Secretary of State or the licensing of third parties to serve in that capacity, or both.
(C) In accordance with Sections 26-6-20(18) and 26-6-195, and in reference to all South Carolina laws, rules, and regulations pertaining to service of process where service shall be made on entities described in Rule 4(d)(3) of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, those entities shall be served under Rule 4(d)(8) of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure by:
(1) registered or certified mail-return receipt requested, addressed to the office of the registered agent;
(2) registered or certified mail-return receipt requested, addressed to the office of the secretary of the corporation at its principal office;
(3) e-mailing the service of process that has been postmarked by a United States Postal Service Electronic Postmark in a manner approved by the South Carolina Supreme Court to an e-mail address registered with the Secretary of State for the corporation; or
(4) e-mailing the service of process that has been postmarked by a United States Postal Service Electronic Postmark in a manner approved by the South Carolina Supreme Court to an e-mail address registered with the Secretary of State for the agent for service of process for the corporation.
Notwithstanding any other provisions in this chapter, a governmental agency may use, in accordance with policies and procedures developed by the South Carolina Budget and Control Board and as circumstances allow, in order to perfect service of process of any communication, an e-mail address from any vendor, entity, or individual the governmental agency regulates or does business with, or an e-mail address from the agent for service of process of that vendor, entity, or individual. Such communication postmarked by a United States Postal Service Electronic Postmark shall have the same force of law as the United States Post Office certified mail-return receipt requested. The South Carolina Budget and Control Board shall devise policies and procedures for the use of the United States Postal Service Electronic Postmark in respect to state agencies and operations. These policies and procedures, where necessary, must consider the persons or entities which do not have an e-mail address.
The Computer Crime Act, as contained in Chapter 16 of Title 16, is expressly made applicable to and incorporated into this chapter.
Judgment included $1,110,000 in punitive damages, which is not covered by insurance and not dischargeable in bankruptcy.
Plaintiff: Lawrence Keeter, Ronald Travis Keeter, and Rebecca Keeter,
Defendant: Alpine Towers International, Inc., and Ashley Sexton
Plaintiff Claims: strict liability, negligent design, and negligent training
Defendant Defenses: (1) judgment notwithstanding the verdict as to all causes of action and punitive damages, (2) a new trial, (3) an order requiring Larry to elect between the three causes of action, (4) set-off of the settlement paid by Fort Mill.
Holding: for the plaintiff’s in the amount of $3,400,500.00 actual damages and $1,110,000.00 in punitive damages.
This is the appeal that I first reported at “$4.7 million-dollar verdict in climbing wall case against Alpine Towers in South Carolina Court” The plaintiff at the time of his injury was a 17-year-old student who after falling 20’ was rendered a paraplegic.
This is sad, tragic, and honestly, a disaster of a case for both the defendant and the plaintiff. Worse, this case will have far-reaching effects into the climbing wall and ropes’ course industry. It probably won’t have any effect on those association’s writing standards; however, here again, this case is proof that writing standards by an association creates the cause of action needed by the plaintiff to win and in this case, win big.
The facts of the case are convoluted and made so not by what happened, but by the contracts created by the defendant.
The defendant built an Alpine Tower and sold it to an amusement park, Carowinds. The owner, Fort Mill purchased the Alpine Tower from Carowinds. Fort Mill (former defendant who probably settled out of the case) hired the defendant Alpine Towers International “to move it, install it, and train Fort Mill’s faculty to use it safely.” The term “it” in the sentence means the alpine tower. The contract to provide those services was probably the normal contract used when selling a tower by the defendant because it referred to Alpine Towers as the “Seller.” This came back to haunt the defendant because a seller has a greater degree of liability than just a mover. The agreement stated the seller would do much more than just move the tower.
The plaintiff was climbing the tower with another student belaying him. The belay rope became stuck in the belay device. The instructor was close by, and the student attempted to un-stick the rope herself. In doing so the belayer lost control of the rope, and the climber/plaintiff fell to the ground breaking his back. The plaintiff was rendered a paraplegic by the fall.
The plaintiff sued based on three causes of action.
(1) Alpine Towers was strictly liable for the manufacture and sale of a defective and unreasonably dangerous product; (2) Alpine Towers negligently designed the climbing tower without adequate safety equipment, instructions, and warnings; and (3) Alpine Towers was negligent in failing to properly train Fort Mill’s faculty on how to safely use the climbing tower, particularly in failing to train the faculty to teach student belayers to safely use the belay system.
The jury found for the plaintiff and his parents on all causes of action and awarded the plaintiff damages.
It awarded $500.00 for strict liability, $900,000.00 in actual damages and $160,000.00 in punitive damages for negligent design of the tower, and $2,500,000.00 in actual damages and $950,000.00 in punitive damages for Alpine Tower’s negligence in training Fort Mill’s faculty. The jury also returned a verdict for Larry’s parents for $240,000.00 in actual damages.
Summary of the case
The defendant appealed only the injured plaintiff’s claims and judgment, not the plaintiff’s parent’s claims. The defendant lost all of its arguments on appeal.
The first issue and the third most aggravating issue in this decision was how the court accepted the jury’s decision on the strict liability theory claim. The plaintiff’s experts argued that the belay device being used on the tower was operated manually and if the defendant has supplied automatic devices the fall would not have occurred.
…Gerald George, Ph.D., testified that the Trango Jaws relies on the absence of human error to safely belay a climber. He explained that it was feasible to use an alternative design for the climbing tower incorporating a belay device called a GriGri.
“Absence of human error” is how all accidents occur.
Dr. George testified that without incorporating a “fail-safe” belay device such as the GriGri into the design of a climbing tower used for students, the climbing tower is defective and unreasonably dangerous.
So by using a particular belay device, which was not part of the climbing wall, the defendant was strictly liable. The defendant was liable for the injury because the tower was “defective” based upon the choice of belay devices.
The next issue was the negligent design claim. Negligent design in South Carolina is a failure to exercise due care with the focus on the conduct of the seller or manufacturer. The proof the court accepted in this case was:
[Plaintiff] presented evidence that Alpine Towers conducted a ten-year study ending in 1999 that concluded the majority of accidents on its climbing towers were caused by human error, specifically belayers dropping their climbers.
Proof of the negligent design claim is knowing you have a problem that injures people and failing to do anything about it. The study was the proof of the knowledge, and the plaintiff’s injury was proof of failing to do anything about the problem.
Granted, it seems to be a stretch to apply design to belayers dropping climbers; however, if you look at the structure as including the ropes and belay devices, then the claim makes more sense.
The negligent training claims the final claim and the one that will create the most problems for other people within the industry. The contract signed by the defendant for moving the tower stated that defendant would teach the owner how to use the tower. The purchaser, Fort Mill, intended to use it to teach climbing and belaying. The defendant had manuals, curriculums and classes in how to belay; however, it did not teach the owner how to teach how to belay.
First, Alpine Towers uses a written syllabus when it conducts classes to teach adults how to belay. However, it did not provide the syllabus to Fort Mill to enable Fort Mill to effectively teach students. Second, the belay system designed by Alpine Towers relies on a faculty supervisor to ensure the students are properly belaying the climbers. In addition to [defendant’s employee’s] testimony as to where the faculty supervisor should be positioned, the CEO of Alpine Towers, Joe Lackey, testified, “the staff member should stand directly behind the climber, . . . not thirty feet away.”
However, it gets worse. The plaintiff’s expert testified that no one should belay until they have been tested.
Moreover, despite knowing that Fort Mill would be teaching students to belay and that students were more susceptible to making belaying errors than adults, Alpine Towers did not teach Fort Mill that it should test the students’ competency before allowing them to belay a climber. [Plaintiff’s expert] testified “as a matter of course in my industry, participants are tested,” including whether they are “able to . . . belay in a competent manner, catch falls, lower somebody . . . off a climb.”
However, the statements of the plaintiff’s experts were reinforced by the trade association that the defendant belonged to and that his own employees served on.
Alpine Towers has several employees who serve on the standards committee for the Association for Challenge Courses Technology, which [defendant] called a “climbing society.” Despite evidence of this standard climbing industry practice, Alpine Towers did not teach Fort Mill that it needed to test, how the tests should be conducted, or what particular skills should be tested.
Once again, the trade association (or as the defendant described it the “climbing society”) created standards which instead of helping the defendant win a trial, were used at trial to prove the defendant was negligent.
The final defense to the jury verdict raised by the defendant was Intervening Causation. Basically, this is an argument that something happened after the negligent acts of the defendant caused by a third party who either relieved the defendant of liability or is the real cause of the injury. If the intervening act was foreseeable, then it does not break the chain of liability between the parties. To be a defense, the intervening act must be the “bolt of lightning” without a thunderstorm, which came out of nowhere.
The test for whether a subsequent negligent act by a third party breaks the chain of causation to insulate a prior tortfeasor from liability is whether the subsequent actor’s negligence was reasonably foreseeable. “For an intervening act to break the causal link and insulate the tortfeasor from further liability, the intervening act must be unforeseeable.”
The defendant argued that the actions of the belayer, a co-defendant and the Fort Mill’s actions were an intervening cause. However, in this case, the acts of the defendant were foreseeable. In fact, for the belayer dropping a climber, the defendant had a study which showed what would happen.
So Now What?
The list of errors here is massive. Those errors were magnified by the plaintiff’s experts and trade association to which it belonged.
Marketing makes promises that Risk Management (actually your insurance company in most cases) must pay for. Here the wrong agreement was used where too many promises were made that were not kept by the defendant. If you put it in writing, you better make sure you are doing it; you have to complete the terms of the contract.
Add to that the language of the agreement using the term seller. The defendant created greater liability for itself. A mover moves; a seller agrees to move, set up, and in this case train.
It appears the plaintiff hired better experts. The court quoted from two of the plaintiff’s experts liberally. The court did not make a single quote from the defendant’s experts, or even mention if the defendant had an expert witness.
The defendant did a ten-year study on how people were injured using its towers. As usual, with a study that is not thought-out or done so with legal help, even when there could be legal consequences. The study was used by the plaintiff and the court to prove how negligent the design of the tower was. The study showed that most people were injured by belayers that dropped the climbers. That is what happened in this case.
The defendants own study showed the event was foreseeable, and occurred frequently. That was all the proof the plaintiff needed. If you do a study about injuries, you better solve the problems the study identifies. You just can’t look at the study and say, wow, what a great study.
Remember the big maps in ski patrol headquarters at ski resorts. Patrols used to stick a push pin or mark on the map were accidents occurred. Those maps are no longer found at the headquarters because they were proof that the ski area knew that accidents occurred at the locations with lots of holes in the map. If the injured skier can show his injury occurred at a holey part of the map, winning became much easier.
The worst part of this case is not in how it affects the defendant. The worst part is how this is going to affect climbing walls and rope’s courses across the US.
· Instructors are going to have to stand behind belayers.
· Instructional manuals have to be written in conjunction with an attorney. In this case, valuable information was removed from the manual which the judge attributed to a cause leading to the accident.
· Belay devices are going to be a nightmare. Do you use one that does not fail, but that humans fail to use properly or do you use a static device.
· Before allowing anyone to belay anywhere in the future the belayer is going to have to be tested.
The coup d’état or fait accompli of the case was the judge accepted that the defendant, who had several employees serving on the ACCT standards committee, failed to meet the standards created by the ACCT. What standard? The standard created on how to teach and test belayers.
Alpine Towers has several employees who serve on the standards committee for the Association for Challenge Courses Technology, which Lackey called a “climbing society.” Despite evidence of this standard climbing industry practice, Alpine Towers did not teach Fort Mill that it needed to test, how the tests should be conducted, or what particular skills should be tested.
Then the defendants own instruction manual was quoted by the court as proof the defendant had not followed its own standards.
Ashley testified she was not given a written test, but was required to do a “demonstration” and be watched by a faculty member to make sure she “knew how to do it.” There was no evidence; however, that Alpine Towers took any steps to ensure Fort Mill gave an adequate test of her competency. In fact, Alpine Towers’ instruction manual says only that students “will demonstrate proficiency in belaying before being permitted to belay.”
This is an appellate court decision; I searched but could not find out if this has been appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court. Hopefully……
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Keeter v. Alpine Towers International, Inc., 399 S.C. 179; 730 S.E.2d 890; 2012 S.C. App. LEXIS 171
Lawrence Keeter, Ronald Travis Keeter, and Rebecca Keeter, Appellants/Respondents, v. Alpine Towers International, Inc., and Ashley Sexton, Defendants, Of Whom Alpine Towers International, Inc., is Respondent/Appellant.
Opinion No. 4995
399 S.C. 179; 730 S.E.2d 890; 2012 S.C. App. LEXIS 171
December 6, 2011, Heard
June 27, 2012, Filed
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Rehearing denied by Keeter v. Alpine Towers Int’l, Inc., 2012 S.C. App. LEXIS 248 (S.C. Ct. App., July 31, 2012)
PRIOR HISTORY: [***1]
Appeal From York County. Appellate Case No. 2009-137246. John C. Hayes, III, Circuit Court Judge.
DISPOSITION: AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, AND REMANDED.
COUNSEL: Richard A. Harpootlian and Graham L. Newman, both of Richard A. Harpootlian, P.A., of Columbia, for Appellants/Respondents.
Charles E. Carpenter, Jr., and Carmon V. Ganjehsani, of Carpenter Appeals & Trial Support, LLC, of Columbia, and Thomas C. Salane, of Turner, Padget, Graham & Laney, P.A., of Columbia, for Respondent/Appellant.
JUDGES: FEW, C.J. KONDUROS, J., concurs. THOMAS, J., concurring in a separate opinion.
OPINION BY: FEW
[*184] [**893] FEW, C.J.: Lawrence “Larry” Keeter and his parents brought this action against Alpine Towers International, Inc., for strict liability, negligent design, and negligent training after Larry broke his back and became a paraplegic as a result of a fall to the ground from a climbing tower designed, manufactured, and installed by Alpine Towers. The jury awarded actual and punitive damages in favor of Larry and actual damages in favor of his parents for Larry’s medical bills. After both sides filed post-trial motions, the trial court entered separate judgments in favor of Larry and his parents. Alpine Towers appeals the trial court’s decision [***2] to deny its motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) as to actual and punitive damages, and its motion for a new trial due to an alleged error as to apportionment. Larry appeals the trial court’s ruling requiring him to elect between his three causes of action. We affirm the denial of Alpine Towers’ motions. However, we hold the trial court incorrectly interpreted the jury’s verdict and erred in requiring [*185] Larry to elect. We remand to the trial court with instructions to enter judgment in Larry’s favor against Alpine Towers in the amount of $3,400,500.00 actual damages and $1,110,000.00 punitive damages. 1
1 The judgment in favor of Larry’s parents is not affected by this appeal.
On May 5, 2006, the senior students at Fort Mill High School (Fort Mill) participated in a spring fling recreational field day. During field day, Larry fell more than twenty feet from the climbing tower to the ground. When he hit the ground, Larry broke a vertebra and was rendered a permanent paraplegic. He was seventeen.
Alpine Towers originally sold the climbing tower to Carowinds amusement park near Charlotte, North Carolina. Fort Mill bought the tower from Carowinds [***3] in July 2004 and hired Alpine Towers to move it, install it, and train Fort Mill’s faculty to safely use it. Fort Mill’s contract with Alpine Towers identifies Alpine Towers as “seller” and provides: “Installation includes all hardware, materials, . . . labor, . . . design work, . . . and staff training.” The wooden climbing tower is fifty feet tall, has three sides, and is shaped liked an hourglass. The central safety feature of any climbing tower is the belay system. 2 Alpine Towers designed the belay system on this climbing tower to include four participants–the climber, a primary belayer, a back-up belayer, and a faculty supervisor. The system requires the climber to wear a harness, which is secured to a climbing rope. The rope passes through a pulley at the top of the tower and down to a belay device secured to the ground at the base of the tower. The rope is threaded through the belay device, which uses bends in the rope to create friction to control the speed at which the rope passes through the device. As the [**894] climber ascends, the belayer guides the rope through the belay device to keep the rope taut. If the climber falls from the tower while climbing, [*186] the belayer uses the friction [***4] the belay device creates on the rope to keep the rope from passing back through the device, and thus protects the climber from falling all the way to the ground.
2 Alpine Towers’ instruction manual defines “belay” as “the rope or technique . . . that is used to protect a climber from falling to the ground.” See also Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary 111 (11th ed. 2004) (defining belay as “the securing of a person or a safety rope to an anchor point (as during mountain climbing)”).
After a successful climb, or in the event the climber falls before completing the climb, the belayer lowers the climber to the ground in a controlled fashion by guiding the rope back through the belay device. The friction created on the rope allows the belayer to control the speed of the climber’s descent. 3 Because of the hourglass shape of the tower, a climber being lowered to the ground by the belayer is suspended in air, away from the side of the tower.
3 Alpine Towers’ CEO explained that “not very much” strength is required to hold a climber in the air because the weight is transferred through the belay device to the rope attached to the ground, so that a lightweight belayer can easily lower even a heavy [***5] climber.
Ashley Sexton, a senior at Fort Mill, served as Larry’s primary belayer. Fort Mill trained Ashley to belay as a part of the Junior ROTC program. Larry had never been trained in belaying or climbing, but successfully climbed to the top of the tower. Ashley testified that while she was lowering Larry to the ground “the rope . . . got tight in the [belay device] almost as if it were stuck” and would not move. Neither Ashley nor anyone at Fort Mill had been taught what to do if the rope became stuck in the belay device. When Ashley tried to free the rope, she lost the assistance of the device, was unable to control the rope, and Larry fell more than twenty feet to the ground.
Alpine Towers designed the belay system on the climbing tower and trained Fort Mill’s faculty how to use it. Alpine Towers provided no notice or warning to Fort Mill’s faculty that the climbing rope could get stuck in the belay device it designed into the system. Alpine Towers also provided no training or instruction on how the belayer or faculty supervisor should handle the situation if it did. Alpine Towers chose not to incorporate into the design a readily available, automatically locking belay device [***6] Larry’s experts testified would have stopped Larry’s fall. Alpine Towers did not train Fort Mill’s faculty to require the faculty supervisor to stand directly beside the belayer, which Alpine Towers admitted at trial [*187] should always be done to ensure that proper procedures were followed in the climb and to assist the belayers in the event of a situation like the one that resulted in Larry’s fall. When Larry fell, no back-up belayer was present, and no faculty supervisor was close enough to assist Ashley.
II. Procedural History
All of Larry’s damages were caused by the broken back he suffered as a result of his fall. Larry asserted three causes of action presenting three alternative theories of Alpine Towers’ liability for those damages: (1) Alpine Towers was strictly liable for the manufacture and sale of a defective and unreasonably dangerous product; (2) Alpine Towers negligently designed the climbing tower without adequate safety equipment, instructions, and warnings; 4 and (3) Alpine Towers was negligent in failing to properly train Fort Mill’s faculty on how to safely use the climbing tower, particularly in failing to train the faculty to teach student belayers to safely use the belay [***7] system.
4 Because Alpine Towers did the “design work” for the installation of the tower at Fort Mill, Larry’s negligent design theory includes allegations of negligence in failing to design the tower to meet the specific safety needs of Fort Mill.
Larry also filed suit against Ashley for negligence. Larry’s parents filed suit against Alpine Towers and Ashley for Larry’s medical bills. Larry and his parents settled with Fort Mill before filing suit and dismissed Ashley as a defendant before trial. The jury returned a verdict for Larry on each cause of action. It awarded $500.00 for strict liability, 5 $900,000.00 in actual damages and $160,000.00 in punitive damages for negligent design of the tower, and $2,500,000.00 in actual damages and $950,000.00 in punitive [**895] damages for Alpine Tower’s negligence in training Fort Mill’s faculty. The jury also returned a verdict for Larry’s parents for $240,000.00 in actual damages.
5 The jury originally returned a verdict on the strict liability cause of action in favor of Larry, but with zero damages. After the trial court instructed the jury that it must either award damages to Larry or find in favor of Alpine Towers, it returned a $500.00 award.
[*188] Alpine [***8] Towers filed a post-trial motion seeking (1) judgment notwithstanding the verdict as to all causes of action and punitive damages, (2) a new trial, (3) an order requiring Larry to elect between the three causes of action, (4) set-off of the settlement paid by Fort Mill, and (5) apportionment under the Contribution Among Joint Tortfeasors Act. The trial court denied the JNOV, new trial, and apportionment motions. The court required Larry to elect between his causes of action and ordered that the settlement from Fort Mill be set-off against Larry’s recovery from Alpine Towers. Larry also filed a post-trial motion asking the trial court to enter judgment in the cumulative amount of the damage awards rather than require him to elect. The court denied Larry’s motion and ordered that judgment be entered in the amount of $2,500,000.00 in actual damages and $950,000.00 in punitive damages on the negligent training cause of action.
III. Alpine Towers’ Appeal
A. Directed Verdict and JNOV–Actual Damages
[HN1] “In ruling on motions for directed verdict and JNOV, the trial court is required to view the evidence and the inferences that reasonably can be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the [***9] party opposing the motions.” McMillan v. Oconee Mem’l Hosp., Inc., 367 S.C. 559, 564, 626 S.E.2d 884, 886 (2006). “When we review a trial judge’s . . . denial of a motion for directed verdict or JNOV, we reverse only when there is no evidence to support the ruling or when the ruling is governed by an error of law.” Austin v. Stokes-Craven Holding Corp., 387 S.C. 22, 42, 691 S.E.2d 135, 145 (2010).
In its motions for directed verdict and JNOV, Alpine Towers contested all liability issues, including the sufficiency of the evidence supporting each of Larry’s causes of action. In its Statement of Issues on Appeal, Alpine Towers contends only that the trial court should have granted its motions because the chain of causation was broken as a matter of law. Specifically, Alpine Towers contends the chain of causation was broken by (1) “the intervening and superseding negligent [*189] acts of Fort Mill High School and Ashley Sexton in failing to follow the warnings, directions, and instructions for proper use of the Tower” and (2) “the intervening and superseding negligent acts of Fort Mill High School in failing to undertake its independent duty to properly supervise its students.” However, because [***10] both Larry and Alpine Towers address in their briefs the sufficiency of the evidence supporting each of Larry’s causes of action, we do as well. We find ample evidence to support the jury’s verdict as to each. We also find ample evidence that Ashley’s negligence and any negligence by Fort Mill was foreseeable to Alpine Towers, and thus their negligence does not break the chain of causation from Alpine Towers’ tortious conduct.
1. Strict Liability
In his strict liability theory, Larry focused on Alpine Towers’ design of the climbing tower to incorporate a belay device called Trango Jaws. The Trango Jaws is operated manually and requires the belayer to properly position the climbing rope in the Trango Jaws to create the friction necessary to stop the rope and then control the rate of the climber’s descent. Larry’s expert witness in biomechanics and sports safety, Gerald George, Ph.D., testified that the Trango Jaws relies on the absence of human error to safely belay a climber. He explained that it was feasible to use an alternative design for the climbing tower incorporating a belay device called a GriGri. 6
6 The GriGri costs approximately $75, and the Trango Jaws costs approximately $24. [***11] The CEO of Alpine Towers testified the difference in cost is an “inconsequential amount of money.”
The GriGri is a mechanical device that, when properly threaded, does not rely on the absence of human error. In the event the belayer loses control of the rope, the GriGri automatically stops the rope, and thus protects the climber from falling to the ground. Larry’s climbing wall safety expert, Dan Hague, testified that the GriGri “locks up automatically, . . . you’re not relying on the actions of the belayer to lock the device up.” [**896] He emphasized that the automatic stopping feature of the GriGri is particularly important when students are belaying climbers because of the heightened likelihood of human error. To account for this foreseeable risk, Hague “always uses the GriGri with kids.” In Hague’s opinion, “this injury would not have occurred had a GriGri [*190] been in use that day.” As a normal part of its business, Alpine Towers sells the GriGri for a variety of uses, including on its own climbing towers. Dr. George testified that without incorporating a “fail-safe” belay device such as the GriGri into the design of a climbing tower used for students, the climbing tower is defective and unreasonably [***12] dangerous.
Alpine Towers’ argument that the evidence in support of Larry’s strict liability cause of action is insufficient is that there is no evidence the tower “was in a defective condition, unreasonably dangerous to the user . . . when it left the hands of the defendant.” See Bragg v. Hi-Ranger, Inc., 319 S.C. 531, 539, 462 S.E.2d 321, 326 (Ct. App. 1995). However, the evidence discussed above amply supports the jury’s finding that it was. Moreover, the GriGri qualifies as a “reasonable alternative design” as required under Branham v. Ford Motor Co., 390 S.C. 203, 225, 701 S.E.2d 5, 16 (2010). The trial court correctly denied Alpine Towers’ directed verdict and JNOV motions as to strict liability.
2. Negligent Design
[HN2] “A negligence theory imposes the additional burden on a plaintiff ‘of demonstrating the defendant . . . failed to exercise due care in some respect, and, unlike strict liability, the focus is on the conduct of the seller or manufacturer, and liability is determined according to fault.'” Branham, 390 S.C. at 210, 701 S.E.2d at 9 (quoting Bragg, 319 S.C. at 539, 462 S.E.2d at 326). In his negligent design theory, Larry also relied on the evidence that Alpine Towers should [***13] have used the GriGri in designing a climbing tower to be used by students, particularly student belayers. However, in addition to evidence that the tower was defective and unreasonably dangerous without the GriGri, Larry presented evidence that Alpine Towers failed to exercise reasonable care in the design. Specifically, Larry presented evidence that Alpine Towers conducted a ten-year study ending in 1999 that concluded the majority of accidents on its climbing towers were caused by human error, specifically belayers dropping their climbers. Despite this knowledge, Alpine Towers chose not to design for human error by including a belay device that would automatically lock and prevent the rope from passing back through the [*191] device, thus preventing a fall to the ground such as the one Larry suffered.
Moreover, Larry’s experts testified to several breaches of Alpine Towers’ duty of reasonable care in designing the warnings and instructions on the tower. In particular, Larry’s experts testified faculty supervisors should be instructed to remain within reaching distance of active belay ropes. Alpine Towers’ employee John Mordhurst conceded this instruction was necessary. Mordhurst testified [***14] a faculty supervisor should be at each belay point, and “[t]hey should be . . . in a position to intervene to grab a rope, . . . so they should be right next to the belayers and belay monitors.” In the 1997 edition of Alpine Towers’ instruction manual for the climbing tower, the section entitled “The Belay System” includes this requirement: “[P]rograms should require staff to check the belayer’s and climber’s systems prior to climbing and lowering; . . . the staff member should stand directly beside the climber.” However, Alpine Towers omitted the statement containing this requirement from the 2004 edition of the instruction manual, the edition it provided to Fort Mill.
Additionally, Dr. George testified Alpine Towers should have placed end user warnings on the tower for someone like Larry, who climbed for the first time without any instruction, and Ashley, who never received an instruction manual. Dr. George explained this was necessary to ensure an inexperienced climber such as Larry will know the dangers of climbing and understand how the belay system is designed to work before deciding to begin a climb. This evidence amply supports the jury’s finding that Alpine Towers failed to [***15] exercise reasonable care in designing a defective and unreasonably dangerous climbing tower. Therefore, the trial court was correct to deny Alpine Towers’ motions as to negligent design.
[**897] 3. Negligent Training
In his negligent training theory, Larry presented evidence that despite knowing Fort Mill’s faculty would not be doing most of the belaying, but rather would be teaching students to belay, Alpine Towers did not instruct the faculty how to teach belaying. Larry proved several key facts in support of this claim. First, Alpine Towers uses a written [*192] syllabus when it conducts classes to teach adults how to belay. However, it did not provide the syllabus to Fort Mill to enable Fort Mill to effectively teach students. Second, the belay system designed by Alpine Towers relies on a faculty supervisor to ensure the students are properly belaying the climbers. In addition to Mordhurst’s testimony as to where the faculty supervisor should be positioned, the CEO of Alpine Towers, Joe Lackey, testified, “the staff member should stand directly behind the climber, . . . not thirty feet away.” The obvious purpose of this requirement is to enable the supervisor to keep the students from making errors [***16] and, if they do, to prevent the tragic consequences Larry suffered. However, Larry presented evidence that Alpine Towers did not teach this to the faculty at Fort Mill. One member of Fort Mill’s faculty who attended the Alpine Towers course testified he did not recall being told that a faculty supervisor should stand beside the belayer. When asked why the requirement that “the staff member should stand directly beside the climber” in the 1997 instruction manual was not included in the 2004 edition, Lackey responded, “I’m not sure why it was taken out.”
Moreover, despite knowing that Fort Mill would be teaching students to belay and that students were more susceptible to making belaying errors than adults, Alpine Towers did not teach Fort Mill that it should test the students’ competency before allowing them to belay a climber. Hague testified “as a matter of course in my industry, participants are tested,” including whether they are “able to . . . belay in a competent manner, catch falls, lower somebody . . . off a climb.” He explained:
In a climbing setting you have to be able to assess whether or not the group as a whole is making progress. . . . Since we’re talking about life safety [***17] here and not about math, if someone is not learning at the same rate as the group, you can’t just move to the next topic. You have to slow down. You have to be able to address that one person until everybody’s caught up. In addition, at the end of the training, there needs to be some type of discrete competency test.
Alpine Towers has several employees who serve on the standards committee for the Association for Challenge [*193] Courses Technology, which Lackey called a “climbing society.” Despite evidence of this standard climbing industry practice, Alpine Towers did not teach Fort Mill that it needed to test, how the tests should be conducted, or what particular skills should be tested. 7
7 Ashley testified she was not given a written test, but was required to do a “demonstration” and be watched by a faculty member to make sure she “knew how to do it.” There was no evidence, however, that Alpine Towers took any steps to ensure Fort Mill gave an adequate test of her competency. In fact, Alpine Towers’ instruction manual says only that students “will demonstrate proficiency in belaying before being permitted to belay.”
This evidence provides ample support for the jury’s finding that Alpine Towers [***18] was negligent in failing to properly train the Fort Mill faculty on how to safely use the tower, and thus the trial court properly denied Alpine Towers’ motions as to negligent training.
We affirm the trial court’s decision to deny Alpine Towers’ motions for directed verdict and JNOV as to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting all three of Larry’s causes of action.
4. Intervening Causation
[HN3] The test for whether a subsequent negligent act by a third party breaks the chain of causation to insulate a prior tortfeasor from liability is whether the subsequent actor’s negligence was reasonably foreseeable. “For an intervening act to break the causal link and insulate the tortfeasor from further liability, the intervening act must be unforeseeable.” McKnight v. S.C. Dep’t of Corr., 385 S.C. 380, 387, 684 S.E.2d 566, 569 [**898] (Ct. App. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). The trial court properly charged the jury as follows:
The chain of causation between a defendant’s negligence and the injury itself may be broken by the independent intervening acts or omissions of another person over whom the defendant had no control. In order to decide whether an intervening act breaks the chain of causation, [***19] you must determine whether the intervening act or omission was reasonably foreseeable by the defendant. If the intervening act or omission was a probable consequence of the defendant’s negligence, the defendant is responsible for the plaintiff’s [*194] injuries. If, however, you find that the intervening act or omission was not foreseeable, the defendant is not liable.
By finding in favor of Larry, the jury necessarily found the actions of Ashley and Fort Mill were foreseeable, and therefore the chain of causation was not broken to insulate Alpine Towers from liability. There is ample evidence to support this finding. See Cody P. v. Bank of Am., N.A., 395 S.C. 611, 621-22, 720 S.E.2d 473, 479 (Ct. App. 2011) (“Only in rare or exceptional cases may the question of proximate cause be decided as a matter of law. . . . If there may be a fair difference of opinion regarding whose act proximately caused the injury, then the question of proximate cause must be submitted to the jury.” (internal quotation marks and citations omitted)).
Larry presented evidence that Alpine Towers knew Fort Mill would be using high school students to belay climbers, that adolescents are more susceptible to belaying errors [***20] than adults, and that Alpine Towers conducted a study concluding human error is the most common cause of falls to the ground from climbing towers. Dr. George testified Alpine Towers “knew or should have known . . . of these risks.” He stated it was not merely foreseeable, but “almost predictable,” that high school students would not follow proper procedures for belaying climbers. Hague testified that he has trained “thousands and thousands” of people in belaying over fifteen years, including “many hundreds” of adolescents, he takes different approaches to training depending on the maturity level of the belaying student, adolescents “routinely do not” follow procedures, and Alpine Towers “could easily foresee that adolescents aren’t going to follow all the procedures.”
Therefore, the primary risk associated with the use of a climbing tower is that the belayer, back-up, or faculty supervisor might make an error belaying the climber. Each of Larry’s theories of recovery focused on the allegation that Alpine Towers failed to design for and train against human error in belaying and the supervision of students belaying. This is not a “rare or exceptional” case in which the issue of proximate [***21] cause may be decided as a matter of law. Alpine Towers’ argument that “the intervening and superseding negligent acts of Fort Mill High School and Ashley Sexton” broke the chain of causation fails because there is ample evidence in [*195] the record that precisely the same human error that resulted in Larry’s injury was not only foreseeable to Alpine Towers, but was actually foreseen. Accordingly, we find the trial court properly submitted the question of proximate cause to the jury, and we affirm its decision to deny Alpine Towers’ motions for directed verdict and JNOV as to intervening causation.
B. Directed Verdict and JNOV–Punitive Damages
Alpine Towers also argues the trial court erred in denying its directed verdict and JNOV motions as to punitive damages. We disagree.
[HN4] “When ruling on a directed verdict motion as to punitive damages, the circuit court must view the evidence and the inferences that reasonably can be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Hollis v. Stonington Dev., LLC, 394 S.C. 383, 393-94, 714 S.E.2d 904, 909 (Ct. App. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). This court applies the same standard as the circuit court. 394 S.C. at 394, 714 S.E.2d at 910. [***22] “The issue of punitive damages must be submitted to the jury if more than one reasonable inference can be drawn from the evidence as to whether the defendant’s behavior was reckless . . . .” Mishoe v. QHG of Lake City, Inc., 366 S.C. 195, 201, 621 S.E.2d 363, 366 (Ct. App. 2005). “Recklessness implies the doing of a negligent [**899] act knowingly; it is a conscious failure to exercise due care. If a person of ordinary reason and prudence would have been conscious of the probability of resulting injury, the law says the person is reckless . . . .” Berberich v. Jack, 392 S.C. 278, 287, 709 S.E.2d 607, 612 (2011) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).
Larry made two separate claims for punitive damages against Alpine Towers: (1) for reckless behavior in its design of the climbing tower and (2) for reckless behavior in its failure to properly train the Fort Mill faculty on how to safely use the climbing tower. The jury awarded punitive damages on each claim, so we address each independently.
As to Larry’s claim for punitive damages based on Alpine Towers’ reckless behavior in designing the tower, Larry presented evidence that Alpine Towers knew the majority [*196] of accidents occurring on its [***23] climbing towers were caused by human error by belayers and back-up belayers. Mordhurst conceded that of the three options for a belay device in the design of a climbing tower, “the GriGri has [the] highest likelihood of arresting the fall” of a climber and thus protecting him from falling to the ground if the belayer loses control of the rope. Lackey testified the additional cost of a GriGri is “inconsequential.” Alpine Towers’ decision to design its climbing tower to incorporate the Trango Jaws instead of the GriGri under these circumstances is sufficient evidence Alpine Towers was “conscious of the probability of resulting injury” from its negligence, and therefore was reckless. The trial court was correct to submit the issue of punitive damages for reckless design to the jury. 392 S.C. at 287, 709 S.E.2d at 612.
As to Larry’s claim for punitive damages based on Alpine Towers’ reckless behavior in failing to properly train the Fort Mill faculty, in addition to the evidence discussed above, Alpine Towers knew Fort Mill would be using student belayers, whom Alpine Towers knew to be less attentive to following procedures and more susceptible to errors in belaying than adults. Nevertheless, [***24] Alpine Towers (1) chose not to train Fort Mill’s faculty to teach others, particularly students; (2) did not include in the training materials given to Fort Mill the syllabus Alpine Towers uses to teach belaying; (3) removed from its training manual the specific instruction for faculty supervisors to “stand directly behind the climber”; (4) did not teach Fort Mill to follow the industry practice of testing belayers on the basic skills of belaying before allowing them to belay climbers; and (5) did not inform Fort Mill it had the option of an automatically locking belay device such as the GriGri to compensate for the greater risk posed by the use of student belayers. This also is sufficient evidence Alpine Towers was “conscious of the probability of resulting injury” from its negligence, and therefore was reckless. The trial court was correct to submit the issue of punitive damages for reckless training to the jury. Id.
Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s decision to deny Alpine Towers’ directed verdict and JNOV motions as to punitive damages.
[*197] C. Apportionment of Fort Mill’s Fault
Alpine Towers contends it is entitled to a new trial because the trial court did not allow the jury to [***25] consider the fault of Fort Mill when it apportioned fault under section 15-38-15 of the South Carolina Code (Supp. 2011). 8 However, our ruling affirming the jury’s award of punitive damages makes it unnecessary to address this issue as [HN5] the apportionment statute “does not apply to a defendant whose conduct is determined to be . . . reckless.” § 15-38-15(F).
8 After the jury’s verdict as to liability, the trial court required it to apportion fault between Alpine Towers and Ashley. The jury determined that Ashley was 60% at fault and Alpine Towers was 40% at fault. The jury was not asked to consider the fault of Fort Mill.
IV. Larry’s Appeal
Larry appeals the trial court’s post-trial ruling entering judgment in his favor in the amount of $2,500,000.00 in actual damages and $950,000.00 in punitive damages. He contends the trial court erred in interpreting the verdicts as “three awards” and requiring him to elect which cause of action would be his remedy. We agree.
[HN6] “Election of remedies involves a choice between different forms of redress [**900] afforded by law for the same injury . . . . It is the act of choosing between inconsistent remedies allowed by law on the same set of facts.” Taylor v. Medenica, 324 S.C. 200, 218, 479 S.E.2d 35, 44-45 (1996). [***26] Larry asserted three causes of action, but sought only one remedy–damages–for only one injury–a broken back. When a plaintiff seeks only one remedy, there is nothing to elect. See Adams v. Grant, 292 S.C. 581, 586, 358 S.E.2d 142, 144 (Ct. App. 1986) (“Where a plaintiff presents two causes of action because he is uncertain of which he will be able to prove, but seeks a single recovery, he will not be required to elect.”).
The trial court in this case recognized that Larry’s three causes of action sought only one remedy. In its post-trial order, the court wrote:
Here, both products liability claims and the negligence claim represent three theories for recovery for the same injury and damages–personal injuries sustained by [Larry] in his [*198] fall. [Larry] had one fall and all his injury and damages flow therefrom regardless of the number of acts of omission or commission of [Alpine Towers].
Because Larry sought only one remedy, the doctrine of election of remedies does not apply. [HN7] “As its name states, the doctrine applies to the election of ‘remedies’ not the election of ‘verdicts.'” Austin, 387 S.C. at 57, 691 S.E.2d at 153 (defining a “‘remedy’ as ‘[t]he means by which . . . the violation [***27] of a right is . . . compensated.'” (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 1163 (5th ed. 1979))).
This court addressed a similar situation in Creach v. Sara Lee Corp., 331 S.C. 461, 502 S.E.2d 923 (Ct. App. 1998). The plaintiff in Creach “bit down on a hard substance in a steak biscuit made by Sara Lee Corporation,” “experience[d] severe pain,” and had to undergo “extensive dental work.” 331 S.C. at 463, 502 S.E.2d at 923-24. She sued Sara Lee and others “alleging negligence, breach of warranty, and strict liability.” 331 S.C. at 463, 502 S.E.2d at 923. After a verdict for Creach on all three causes of action, Sara Lee asked the trial judge to require her to elect her remedy. The judge refused to do so, and this court affirmed, holding “while the complaint stated three different causes of action, only one recovery was sought and only one recovery was awarded. Under these circumstances, no election was required.” 331 S.C. at 464, 502 S.E.2d at 924 (citing Taylor, 324 S.C. at 218, 479 S.E.2d at 44-45). Creach supports our holding that because Larry sought one remedy for one injury, the trial court erred in requiring him to elect.
Nevertheless, the trial court and this court must ensure that Larry [***28] does not receive a double recovery. See Collins Music Co. v. Smith, 332 S.C. 145, 147, 503 S.E.2d 481, 482 (Ct. App. 1998) ( [HN8] “It is well settled in this state that there can be no double recovery for a single wrong and a plaintiff may recover his actual damages only once.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). The determination of whether a verdict grants a double recovery begins with the trial court’s responsibility to interpret the verdict in order to ascertain the jury’s intent. The trial court interpreted the jury’s verdict in this case to be “three awards,” and therefore “inconsistent” because [*199] it allowed Larry a double recovery. We find the trial court erred in its interpretation of the verdict.
The error arose from the verdict form. Because Larry asserted three causes of action, the trial court correctly fashioned the verdict form to require the jury to write its verdict for each cause of action. However, because Larry sought only one remedy–damages–and because the amount of those damages could not vary from one cause of action to another, the trial court should have required the jury to write one amount for Larry’s actual damages, and should not have permitted the jury to write [***29] a damages amount for each of the three causes of action. The use of the three blanks for damages in the verdict form left the verdict ambiguous as to the amount of damages the jury intended to award.
[HN9] To determine the jury’s intent in an ambiguous verdict, the court should consider the entire proceedings, focusing on the events and circumstances that reasonably indicate what the jury intended. See Durst v. S. Ry. Co., 161 S.C. 498, 506, 159 S.E. 844, 848 (1931) (stating “the construction of a verdict should, and can, depend upon, not only the language used by the jury, but other things occurring in the trial may be, and [**901] should be, properly regarded in determining what a jury intended to find”); Howard v. Kirton, 144 S.C. 89, 101, 142 S.E. 39, 43 (1928) (stating it is “the duty of the trial judge to decide what the verdict meant, and, in reaching his conclusion thereabout, it was his duty to take into consideration not only the language of the verdict, but all the matters that occurred in the course of the trial”); see also 75B Am. Jur. 2d Trial § 1545 (2007) (“In the interpretation of an ambiguous verdict, the court may make use of anything in the proceedings that serves to show with [***30] certainty what the jury intended, and, for this purpose, reference may be had, for example, to the pleadings, the evidence, the admissions of the parties, the instructions, or the forms of verdict submitted.”).
To correctly interpret the verdict in this case, the trial court was required to consider several indications of the jury’s intention as to damages. First, the court should have considered its own conclusion that Larry sought only one remedy–damages–and that all of his damages flowed from the broken back resulting from his fall from the tower. Thus, it was not [*200] possible for the damages to vary from one cause of action to another. Second, after the jury returned the verdicts, Larry made a motion asking the court to inquire of the jury whether it meant for the damages awarded to be cumulative. Alpine Towers did not object to the request. While the jury was still in the courtroom, the judge asked the forelady if the jury intended the verdicts to be cumulative.
The Court: . . . Before you leave, I’ve got one last question. On the three causes of action you have awarded different amounts of damages. . . . Was it the jury’s intention to award those cumulatively, that is they add up to [***31] [$3.4 million and $500.00] . . . or did you simply mean that the damages as to each cause of action were to be separate . . . .
Forelady: Ask me that again.
. . .
The Court: . . . You have ordered [$500.00] on one, [$900,000.00] on one, and [$2.5 million] on one. Is it the jury’s intention that those are to be added, that is cumulative, or is the jury’s intention that as to each cause of action that award applies only to that cause of action?
Forelady: It’s cumulative.
The Court: Okay. How about . . . as to the punitive, you had [$160,000.00] and [$950,000.00], which adds up . . . to [$1.1 million] [sic]. Is it the same for that also?
Forelady: It’s cumulative.
The trial court then asked each side separately if there was “anything else before the jury’s dismissed?” Both Larry and Alpine Towers answered that they had nothing further, and the trial court dismissed the jury. 9
9 The trial court found, and Alpine Towers argues on appeal, that Larry should have sought further inquiry into the jury’s intent and that his failure to do so forecloses his argument that the jury intended the verdicts to be cumulative. We disagree. Larry is the party who initially asked the court to inquire whether the [***32] jury intended the verdict to be cumulative. Larry’s counsel stated to the court “you can either inquire of the jury here in the courtroom or you can send them out, whatever you’re comfortable with.” Alpine Towers’ counsel stated, “I wouldn’t oppose that request.” The trial court then made the decision to ask only the forelady. The forelady’s answer, “It’s cumulative,” was the answer Larry was looking for, and therefore Larry had no reason to inquire further on that subject. Alpine Towers, who at that point did have reason to inquire further, said nothing. Therefore, to the extent the lack of further inquiry should be considered, we believe it should be held against Alpine Towers.
[*201] In the context that Larry sought, and could obtain, only one damages award for the same injury, this dialogue adequately demonstrates the jury intended the damage amounts written in the three blanks on the verdict form to be added together for a total award to Larry of $3,400,500.00 actual damages and $1,110,000.00 punitive damages. However, there was more to indicate this was the jury’s intention. During deliberations the jury sent a note to the court stating the jurors were deadlocked as to whether to award [***33] $4.5 million or $5 million and asking for suggestions. The court responded that it had no suggestions. The total amount of damages awarded, including the amount awarded to Larry’s parents, was $4.75 million, 10 which is between the two amounts [**902] listed in the note. Further, the court should have considered that it gave the jury no basis on which to find different damage awards on different causes of action. In fact, the only place in the damages instruction where the court differentiated between the causes of action at all was to explain to the jury it may award punitive damages only on the negligence theories of recovery.
10 At the point of the trial when the jury sent this note, the court had not instructed the jury it must award damages on the strict liability claim or find for the defendant. Thus, the $500.00 damages awarded on that cause of action is not included in this figure.
This court has stated that [HN10] “it is the duty of the court to sustain verdicts when a logical reason for reconciling them can be found.” Daves v. Cleary, 355 S.C. 216, 231, 584 S.E.2d 423, 430 (Ct. App. 2003). In fulfilling this duty, we may not substitute our judgment for that of the jury. See Lorick, 153 S.C. at 319, 150 S.E. at 792 [***34] (stating the court has a right to give “effect to what the jury unmistakably found” but cannot “invade the province of the jury”). The jury’s verdict in this case is readily reconciled as we have explained. We can discern no other way to interpret the verdict consistent with the applicable law and the facts of this case, nor can we find in the record any reason to believe this interpretation does not reflect the intent of the jury. Moreover, during arguments on post-trial motions, counsel for Alpine Towers explained to the trial court what he believed the jury did:
[*202] Let me tell you what I think happened. . . . [When they sent the note asking for suggestions,] they advised that they had arrived at a general block of the amount of the damages that they wanted to give to compensate Mr. Keeter. What they then did because the verdict form is listed in such a way that it says actual damages and punitive damages leaving both blank that they went through and parceled out the total amount of compensatory damages that they wanted to award . . . . And the damages for all three claims are identical . . . , there is no differentiation on the damages . . . . [T]hey arrived at a larger figure then [***35] they parceled it up to fill in the blanks. 11
Interpreting the verdict based on “all the matters that occurred in the course of the trial,” Howard, 144 S.C. at 101, 142 S.E. at 43, we disagree with the trial court and find the jury did not make an “inconsistent damages award.” See 75B Am. Jur. 2d Trial § 1556 (2007) (“In order for a verdict to be deemed inconsistent, there must be inconsistencies within each independent action rather than between verdicts in separate and distinct actions.”). Rather, we find that the jury intended the amounts to be added together for a total verdict in Larry’s favor of $3,400,500.00 actual damages and $1,110,000.00 punitive damages. Accordingly, we hold the trial court erred in its interpretation of the verdicts and judgment should have been entered in the cumulative amount of actual and punitive damages the jury wrote on the verdict form for each of Larry’s causes of action.
11 In fairness to counsel, the statement was made as part of his argument that the verdicts were inconsistent. However, we believe the statement accurately explains why the jury put different damage amounts in different blanks.
For the reasons explained above, we affirm [***36] the trial court’s decision to deny Alpine Towers’ motions for directed verdict, JNOV, and for a new trial. We reverse the trial court’s interpretation of the jury verdict and remand with instructions that judgment be entered against Alpine Towers in favor of Larry Keeter in the amount of $3,400,500.00 actual damages and $1,110,000.00 punitive damages.
[*203] AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, AND REMANDED.
KONDUROS, J., concurs.
CONCUR BY: THOMAS
THOMAS, J., concurring in a separate opinion.
THOMAS, J.: I concur with the majority as to Alpine Towers’ appeal. As to Larry’s appeal, I concur in result. I agree that this case does not involve the need to elect remedies or an inconsistent verdict. I write separately to clarify that questioning the entire jury and then conforming the jury’s verdict to the jury’s intent are the best practices for ensuring a valid verdict.
[**903] First, when a party raises a question about the jury’s intent for the verdict, the best practice is to poll all of the jurors or allow the foreperson to answer the court’s questions after consulting with the entire jury. Lorick & Lowrance, Inc. v. Julius H. Walker Co., 153 S.C. 309, 314-15, 150 S.E. 789, 791 (1929). The need to clarify the jury’s [***37] intent almost invariably arises when the language used on the verdict form is problematic. Without an inquiry of the remaining jurors, questioning only the foreperson unnecessarily risks that the jury’s precise intent will remain unknown. This danger is heightened by the likelihood of arguments that the foreperson misunderstood the court’s questions or provided a response not reflecting the entire jury’s intent.
Second, if the initial inquiry shows the jury’s intent differs from what the jury wrote on the verdict form, the best practice is to either send the jury back to conform the verdict to the jury’s intent or have the correction made in open court with the jury’s consent. Id. at 314-15, 150 S.E. at 791. After the jury is discharged, the court may construe the verdict in a manner that diverges from the language used by the jury only when the surrounding circumstances make the jury’s intent unmistakable and the court’s construction reflects that intent. Id. at 319-20, 150 S.E. at 792-93.
I disagree with the majority’s statement in footnote 9 that Larry had no reason to seek further inquiry of the jury’s intent after the foreperson testified the actual and punitive damages amounts [***38] were cumulative. The movant has the most [*204] incentive to ask the court to send the jury back to conform the verdict to the jury’s intent or have the correction made in open court with the jury’s consent. These practices best ensure the verdict reflects the jury’s intent, and a verdict rendered in accordance with them is nearly impossible to attack by arguing the jury’s intent is unclear. See Billups v. Leliuga, 303 S.C. 36, 39, 398 S.E.2d 75, 76 (Ct. App. 1990) (stating “a jury verdict should be upheld when it is possible to do so and carry into effect the jury’s clear intention,” and holding the jury’s intent was clear despite “some confusion in the jury’s initial written verdict” because the foreperson testified as to the jury’s intent, the clerk published the jury’s intent after the foreperson put the intent in writing, and the remaining jurors were polled to ensure their intent complied with the published intent); cf. Joiner v. Bevier, 155 S.C. 340, 351, 354-55, 152 S.E. 652, 656-57 (1930) (stating the court has the “duty to enforce a verdict, not to make it” and holding that despite some initial difficulty in getting the jury to render a verdict proper in form, the jury’s intent [***39] was “entirely clear” when the verdict after a second set of deliberations “corresponded exactly” with the special findings obtained prior to sending the jury back to deliberate). Moreover, if the above practices are not used, the movant risks having to meet its burden of establishing that the jury’s intent is absolutely clear using solely the surrounding circumstances of the case. Lorick, 153 S.C. at 319-20, 150 S.E. at 792-93. Here, the jury did not conform the verdict to its intent, nor was the jury polled. 12 Therefore, because the burden to establish the jury’s intent remains on Larry as the movant, 13 he must establish the jury’s intent was unmistakable based on the surrounding circumstances of the case.
12 In fairness to Larry, he asked the trial court to determine whether the verdict in his favor was intended to be cumulative. He suggested to the trial court, “[E]ither inquire of the jury . . . in the courtroom or . . . send them out.” The trial court instead only questioned the foreperson in the presence of the other jurors.
13 In discussing the movant’s incentive and burden, I am not referring to our rules of preservation. This issue is preserved because Larry sufficiently raised [***40] it to the trial court by seeking to clarify the jury’s intent in the above-suggested manner before the jury was discharged and the trial court ruled on his motion.
[*205] Despite the uphill battle undertaken in this case to establish the jury’s intent, I agree to remand for an entry of judgment against Alpine Towers in favor of Larry for $3,400,500.00 actual damages and $1,110,000.00 punitive damages. The surrounding circumstances of this case make the jury’s intent unmistakable. Taken together, the forelady’s testimony, the jury note, the jury charge, the total damages awarded, and the single injury alleged can lead to only one conclusion: the jury intended to award Larry [**904] $3,400,000 in actual damages 14 and $1,110,000 in punitive damages.
14 This amount omits the damages awarded for the strict liability claim because the jury note was sent before the jury re-deliberated the strict liability claim.
SOUTH CAROLINA CODE OF LAWS ANNOTATED BY LEXISNEXIS®
TITLE 39. TRADE AND COMMERCE
CHAPTER 65. PAYMENT OF POST-TERMINATION CLAIMS TO SALES REPRESENTATIVES
GO TO SOUTH CAROLINA STATUTES ARCHIVE DIRECTORY
As used in this chapter:
(1) “Commissions” means compensation accruing to a sales representative for payment by a principal, the rate of which is expressed as a percentage of the amount of orders or sales or as a specified amount of each order or sale.
(2) “Person” means an individual, corporation, partnership, association, estate, or trust.
(3) “Principal” means a person who:
(a) manufactures, produces, imports, or distributes a tangible product for wholesale;
(b) contracts with a sales representative to solicit orders for the product; and
(c) compensates the sales representative, in whole or in part, by commission.
(4) “Sales representative” means a person who:
(a) contracts with a principal to solicit wholesale orders;
(b) is compensated, in whole or in part, by commission;
(c) does not place orders or purchase for his own account or for resale; and
(d) does not sell or take orders for the sale of products to the ultimate consumer.
When a contract between a sales representative and a principal is terminated for any reason, the principal shall pay the sales representative all commissions that have or will accrue under the contract to the sales representative according to the terms of the contract.
A principal who fails to comply with the provisions of Section 39-65-20 is liable to the sales representative in a civil action for:
(1) all amounts due the sales representative plus punitive damages in an amount not to exceed three times the amount of commissions due the sales representative; and
(2) attorney’s fees actually and reasonably incurred by the sales representative in the action and court costs.
Where the court determines that an action brought by a sales representative against a principal under this chapter is frivolous, the sales representative is liable to the principal for attorney’s fees actually and reasonably incurred by the principal in defending the action and court costs.
A principal who is not a resident of this State who contracts with a sales representative to solicit orders in this State is deemed to be doing business in this State for purposes of the exercise of personal jurisdiction over nonresidents under Part 8, Chapter 2, Title 36.
Nothing in this chapter invalidates or restricts any other right or remedy available to a sales representative or precludes a sales representative from seeking to recover in one action on all claims against a principal.
A provision in any contract between a sales representative and a principal purporting to waive any provision of this chapter, whether by expressed waiver or by a contract subject to the laws of another state, is void.
Any person bringing an action under the provisions of this chapter may not bring an action under the provisions of Section 41-10-10.
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