South Carolina Supreme Court Upholds Tiered Cap on Damages

The Supreme Court of South Carolina recently upheld a state law that sets a two-tiered cap on damages in personal injury lawsuits against state entities. The scheme permits lawsuits of up to $1.2 million against state-employed physicians, surgeons and dentists, while capping lawsuits against all other state entities at $300,000 per person and $600,000 per occurrence.

Larry and Jeannie Boiter challenged the validity of the law under the South Carolina state constitution after they were seriously injured in a motorcycle accident that occurred because of a burned-out traffic light. A citizen had reported that the light was out nearly 90 minutes before the accident took place.

The Boiters sued the South Carolina Department of Transportation and the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, claiming that both entities had negligently failed to take steps to prevent the accident.

At trial, a jury awarded the Boiters a total of $1.875 million in damages, but the court reduced the award to $600,000 because of the statutory tort limit, finding that only one occurrence of negligence had taken place.

The Boiters challenged the verdict on the grounds that the two-tiered cap on damages denied them equal protection of the law by treating claims differently based solely on the identity of the defendant. The South Carolina Supreme Court had upheld the scheme against three prior challenges, and once again found the two-tiered system to be valid.

Even though the court struck down the Boiters' constitutional challenge, their appeal was successful in one regard: the court found that the accident stemmed from two independent, separate acts of negligence, involving two distinct government entities - the Department of Safety and the Department of Transportation. As a result, the couple was entitled to damages of $1.2 million instead of the $600,000 they were previously awarded.