|Case of the Month|
Ronald E. Clark, Sr., Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Amy Danielle Clark, Respondent, v. South Carolina Department of Public Safety and Charles Clyde Johnson, of whom South Carolina Department of Public Safety is Petitioner.
Mr. Clark's daughter was killed in a head on collision with a car driven by Charles Clyde Johnson who was being pursued by Trooper Greg Bradley. Mr. Clark maintained the Department of Public Safety failed to properly supervise the high speed pursuit and to terminate it before the fatal accident. A jury in York County returned a verdict for Mr. Clark in the amount of $3.75 million. They found Mr. Johnson was 80% at fault and the Department of Public Safety was 20% at fault, resulting in a verdict against Mr. Johnson of $3 million and against the Department of Public Safety for $750,000.1 The verdict against the Department of Public Safety was reduced to $250,000 because, at the time, that was the maximum amount that could be recovered against a state agency under the South Carolina Tort Claims Act.
The Department of Public Safety filed an appeal in the South Carolina Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals affirmed the jury verdict. The Department of Public Safety has now asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals' decision.
The issues before the Court include the standard of care that should be exercised by law enforcement officers during high speed pursuits. The Department of Public Safety argues the trial judge erred in allowing the jury to determine the standard of care based on the testimony of an expert witness, instead of determining as a matter of law what the applicable standard of care is and instructing the jury accordingly.
The Department of Public Safety also argues that the trial judge erred in allowing the case to go to the jury instead of finding, as a matter of law, that Trooper Bradley was not grossly negligent in his decision to initiate and maintain the pursuit.2 When a judge decides as a matter of law that a plaintiff has not presented a sufficient case to go to the jury, the judge will grant the defendant a directed verdict or a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). The Department of Public Safety argues that is what the trial judge should have done in this case.
A third issue raised by the Department of Public Safety is whether the Department can be held liable for failing to supervise if Trooper Bradley did not breach his duty of care. This issue arises from a question and statement submitted by the jury which indicated they found no breach of care associated with Trooper Bradley's actions, only the Department's failure to abide by supervision requirements. The Department argues it cannot be held liable for its failure to supervise if Trooper Bradley was not negligent.
The Department of Public Safety also argues Trooper Bradley's conduct was subject to discretionary immunity under the South Carolina Tort Claims Act. The Department argues the trial judge should have granted a directed verdict on the ground that the decision whether to pursue or terminate pursuit was a judgment call entitled to discretionary immunity under S.C. Code Ann. § 15-78-60(5).
Finally, the Department of Public Safety argues the verdict was excessive and disproportionate to the damages sustained by Amy Clark's beneficiaries, indicating the jury acted out of caprice, passion, prejudice, partiality or other improper motives. The Department argues the trial judge should have granted them a new trial on that ground.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has filed an Amicus Curiae brief. Amicus Curiae means "friend of the court." These briefs are rare but are filed when an outside party believes the Court's decision in a case may have an effect on them. The Department of Natural Resources is concerned about the effect the Court's decision regarding high speed chases might have on its officers.
1 Mr. Johnson pled guilty in September 1997 to charges of felony DUI causing death, failure to stop for a blue light resulting in death, felony DUI causing great bodily injury, assault with intent to kill, and possession of a stolen vehicle. Mr. Johnson registered .244 on a blood alcohol test and tested positive for marijuana and cocaine.
2 The parties agreed that gross negligence is the standard of liability in this case. In other words, Mr. Clark cannot recover unless he proves the Department of Public Safety, or Trooper Bradley, was grossly negligent in handling the pursuit.
Brief of Respondent (1.51Mb)
Brief of Petitioner (1.89 Mb)
Amici Curae Brief (589 Kb)
Reply Brief of Petitioner (846 Kb)