Carla Denise Garrison’s 8-year-old daughter picked up a used hypodermic needle from the parking lot outside a Target store and asked, “Mom, what’s this?” Garrison instinctively pushed the syringe away, nudging his palm in the process.
The puncture led Garrison to go through a year of periodic blood tests with constant worries of contracting hepatitis or AIDS. After Target refused to pay Garrison’s medical bills, it sued and won a $4.6 million jury verdict that was upheld by the South Carolina Court of Appeals.
The South Carolina Supreme Court may have retracted most of that victory in a ruling released Wednesday. In a 5-0 decision, the High Court ordered the trial court judge to reconsider his decision to reject the award of punitive damages, but also to consider South Carolina’s statutory cap on damages. punitive damages apply at Garrison’s claim.
That could limit the jury’s award of $4.5 million in punitive damages to $300,000 or $400,000. The exact amount depends on the facts to be determined by the trial court judge.
The decision overturns a finding by the Court of Appeals that the law that caps punitive damages does not apply unless the defendant argues that it should in the pleadings. This is called an affirmative defence.
The Supreme Court has said that affirmative defenses are generally reserved for issues that a jury must resolve.
“The plain language of the statute does not place the burden on the defendant to prove that the cap applies,” the court’s unanimous opinion reads. “On the contrary, the legislator asks only the courts of first instance to determine what level of cap should be applied in a particular case.”
After being stung, Garrison immediately rushed into Target’s public restroom to run water over her hand. She reported the incident to the store. A claims investigator asked her if she believed Target was responsible for the injury. She told him the store was responsible for parking and wanted Target to pay her medical bills.
An infectious disease specialist prescribed her medication which she says left her in a “zombie state” and caused night terrors. She underwent blood tests every three months for a year to monitor for any emerging infections.
Garrison asked Target to pay him $12,000. After Target refused, she and her husband, Clint, filed a lawsuit in Anderson County.
A jury found in the couple’s favor and awarded $100,000 in compensatory damages plus $4.5 million in punitive damages. The jury also awarded Clint Garrison $8,500 for lost wages and lost consortium.
Circuit Court Judge R. Keith Kelly rejected the award of punitive damages in judgment notwithstanding the verdict. But Kelly allowed the compensatory damages to stand, saying Target had “constructive knowledge” that the parking lot was unsafe. Both parties appealed.
A three-judge Court of Appeals panel reinstated the punitive damages award, citing testimony that Target did not regularly clean the parking lot and “there was trash everywhere” even though store managers stated that the parking lot was cleaned every Thursday evening. Clint Garrison had even camped out in the Target parking lot on a Thursday night to show that it wasn’t regularly cleaned.
The appeals court also found that Target waived its right to cap the price under the statutory cap under Section 15-32-530 because it failed to mention the cap in its pleadings. Judge D. Garrison Hill dissented, saying nothing in the statute says the cap on punitive damages can only be enforced if it is mentioned in the pleadings.
Similarly, the Supreme Court found that the appeal board had enshrined a requirement in law that does not exist. But the High Court asked the trial court to review the jury’s punitive damages award and consider not only the harm done to Garrison, but also the potential harm that could have been done to him, as well as to other customers, due to Target’s negligence. .
“Although Denise did not ultimately contract a disease from the syringe, the trial court erred in failing to consider any potential harm in calculating the ratio, including harm that may result from it. result in other customers due to Target’s failure to maintain the parking lot in a reasonably safe condition,” the court said.
Of course, Section 15-32-530 will limit any award of punitive damages to three times the amount of compensatory damages, unless one of three statutory exemptions apply:
- The wrongful conduct was motivated by unreasonable financial gain and the high likelihood of harm was known to the defendant.
- The defendant’s action could expose the defendant to a felony conviction.
- The accused acted while intoxicated after intentionally consuming alcohol or drugs.
If the trial court determines that one of these factors applies, punitive damages are limited to four times the amount of compensatory damages. Either way, the judgment appears to limit Garrison’s potential award to $500,000.
There is a consolation: the High Court also overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision and ruled that Denise Garrison was entitled to 8% interest on her full award – including punitive damages – from the date Target rejected its settlement offer to the date of the verdict.
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