In The Supreme Court
Amy Summer, Appellant,
Robert R. Carpenter, Respondent.
Appeal From York County
Gary E. Clary, Judge
Opinion No. 24689
Heard March 19, 1997 - Filed September 22, 1997
AFFIRMED IN PART; REVERSED IN PART
Mark W. Hardee, of Lewis, Babcock & Hawkins, L.L.P., of Columbia, for appellant.
James W. Alford, Curtis W. Dowling, and Andrew E. Haselden. of
Barnes, Alford, Stork & Johnson, L.L.P., of Columbia, for
Burnett, A.J.: Appellant brought this legal malpractice action against
respondent alleging he was negligent for failing to institute suit against the South
Carolina Department of Highways and Public Transportation (the Highway Department).
Appellant seeks review of the trial judge's order granting respondent's motion for
summary judgment. We affirm in part and reverse in part.
Appellant was rendered a quadriplegic as a result of a single car accident on
June 29, 1989, at the intersection of Heckle Boulevard and Hollis Lakes Road near Rock
SUMMER v. CARPENTER
Hill, South Carolina. At the time of the accident, appellant and Lisa Buchan were
passengers in the car driven by appellant's sister, Kari Summer.
On April 20, 1991, appellant hired respondent. Respondent filed a
complaint against Jim Lineberger Grading & Paving Company, Inc. (Lineberger) on June
28, 1991. In this complaint, respondent alleged Lineberger's negligent construction of
Heckle Boulevard proximately caused appellant's injuries. More particularly, respondent
alleged Lineberger "so constructed Heckle Boulevard that a bump or dip crossed Hollis
Lakes Road ... constituting a hazard to traffic . . .". The statute of limitations ran against
the Highway Department on June 29, 1991.1 Approximately three months after filing
suit, respondent determined he had a conflict of interest, and he was relieved as
Another attomey assumed representation of appellant. Two years later,
appellant's case against Lineberger was settled for a lump sum of $121,000 plus an
annuity providing for monthly payments of $600, guaranteed for 30 years or until
appellant's death. At approximately the same time. Buchan's lawsuit against Lineberger
was dismissed pursuant to Lineberger's motion for summary judgment.
Appellant commenced this legal malpractice action against respondent
asserting she was unable to obtain full recovery for her injuries because the Highway
Department was not included in the lawsuit against Lineberger. At the hearing on
respondent's motion for summary judgment. appellant argued respondent should have
brought an action against the Highway Department for negligent design and negligent
maintenance of the intersection.
The trial court concluded, even if respondent was negligent in failing to
bring an action against the Highway Department, respondent's negligence did not
prejudice appellant because she would not have had a successful action against the
Highway Department. Specifically, the trial judge found the Highway Department was
immune from suit under several statutory defenses in the South Carolina Tort Claims Act
(the Act)2 and, further, under the doctrine of joint and several liability, the presence or
absence of the Highway Department in the underlying suit was immaterial.
1 South Carolina Code Ann. § 15-78-100(a) (Supp. 1996)(an action for damages under
the Tort Claims Act may be instituted at any time within two years after the loss was or
should have been discovered).
2 S.C. Code Ann. §§ 15-78-10 to -190 (Supp. 1996).
SUMMER v. CARPENTER
Consequently, the trial judge granted respondent's motion for summary judgment.
I. Did the trial judge err by holding the Highway Department would have
had design immunity? Is appellant's negligent maintenance argument
preserved for consideration on appeal?
II. Did the trial judge err by holding the Highway Department would have
been immune from suit due to the exercise of its discretion pursuant to § 15-
III. Did the trial judge err by holding the Highway Department would have
been immune from suit pursuant to § 15-78-60 (15)?
IV. Did the trial judge err by holding failure to institute suit against the
Highway Department did not prejudice appellant due to the doctrine of joint
and several liability?
Summary judgment is appropriate when it is clear there is no genuine issue
of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. City of Columbia v. American Civil Liberties Union, _ S.C. _, 475 S.E.2d 747 (1996). In
determining whether any triable issue of fact exists, the evidence and all inferences which
can be reasonably drawn therefrom must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-
moving party. Id.; Manning v. Quinn, 294 S.C. 383, 365 S.E.2d 24 (1988).
In a legal malpractice action, the plaintiff must prove (1) the defendant was
negligent, (2) the defendant's negligence proximately caused the plaintiff s injuries, and
(3) damages. Shealy v. Walters, 273 S.C. 330, 256 S.E.2d 739 (1979). In other words, a
plaintiff must show she most probably would have been successful in the underlying suit
if the attorney had not committed the alleged malpractice. Manning, supra; Floyd v. Kosko, 285 S.C. 390, 329 S.E.2d 459 (Ct. App. 1985).
Appellant argues the trial Judge erred by determining the Highway
Department was not negligent in its design of the intersection as a matter of law.
Appellant contends her case against the Highway Department would have been based on
negligent design and maintenance. She claims she presented evidence the Highway
SUMMER v. CARPENTER
Department was on notice the intersection was dangerous and its failure to properly repair
it proximately caused her injuries. We disagree.
As for negligent design, the Act provides absolute governmental immunity
from liability for loss resulting from the design of highways and other public ways. S.C.
Code Ann. § 15-78-60 (15). Therefore, even if the Highway Department was on notice
the design of the intersection was dangerous, the Highwav Department was immune from
suit for negligent design. Accordingly, the trial judge properly granted summary
judgment for respondent on the issue of negligent design.
Appellant's argument concerning negligent maintenance is not preserved
for appeal. The trial judge did not rule on appellant's maintenance claim in his order
granting summary judgment and appellant did not request the trial judge reconsider his
order to address this issue. Accordingly, appellant's negligent maintenance argument is
not proper for consideration on appeal. Noisette v. Ismail, 304 S.C. 56, 403 S.E.2d 122
(1991)(where trial judge did not explicitly rule on issue at trial and party did not make
Rule 59(e), SCRCP, motion to amend for a ruling, it is error for an appellate court to
consider the issue).
Nonetheless, with regard to appellant's negligent maintenance argument, the
evidence indicates the intersection of Hollis Lakes Road and Heckle Boulevard was
designed by the Highway Department and was constructed by Lineberger in accordance
with the Highway Department's plans and specifications. Two bumps or dips which were
part of the original design of the intersection resulted from tying the two roads together.3
Lineberger began construction of the intersection in late April 1989. Even
though the project was still under construction, the intersection was opened for travel on
April 26th. Shortly thereafter, two individuals submitted claims with the Highway
Department for damage to their vehicles due to the bumps in the intersection. The
Highway Department paid the two claims associated with the damage and instructed the
paving company to level or "wedge" the intersection to smooth the bumps in early May
1989.4 The wedging, described as a "slight modification" or "alteration" of the original
plans and specifications, altered the slope of the intersection but did not remove the
bumps entirely. The Highway Department posted two "bump" signs in advance of the
3 A Highway Department engineer explained the bumps resulted from Heckle
Boulevard changing from a single lane road into a four lane road at the intersection.
4 Lineberger subcontracted the paving. The evidence indicates the paving
subcontractor followed the Highway Department's plans and specifications for the
project, including the wedging.
SUMMER v. CARPENTER
intersection. At the time of appellant's accident, approximately two months later, the
intersection was still under construction. The Highway Department accepted the
completed project "long after" appellant's accident.
Respondent's engineering expert testified the wedging work corrected any
problem which may have existed at the intersection and the intersection was safe for the
travelling public at the posted speed limit of 45 mph. Appellant's engineering experts
stated the design and maintenance of the intersection created a dangerous condition and
the attempt to correct the bumps by wedging was inadequate. Appellant's experts
concluded the bumps were a contributing proximate cause of appellant's accident.5
Appellant has attempted to construe her action against the Highway
Department as one for negligent maintenance rather than negligent design since the
Highway Department is immune from suit for negligent design. See § 15-78-60 (15).
However, the evidence indicates the wedging in May 1989 was only a modification of the
original design for the intersection. Moreover, at the time of the accident, the intersection
was still under construction and the project had yet to be returned to the Highway
Department. These circumstances indicate the intersection was still under design and not
subject to maintenance by the Highway Department. Accordingly, even if she had
preserved the issue of negligent maintenance for the Court's consideration, appellant
would not have had a successful action for negligent maintenance and, therefore, she has
failed to establish any prejudice by respondent's failure to file suit against the Highway
Further, it would be a poor policy decision to conclude the Highway
Department waives its design immunity when it alters its original design during the
course of construction. Preserving design immunity under these circumstances would
encourage the Highway Department to modify and/or improve designs during an ongoing
project and, thereby, improve both the construction of and safety on the highways. See
S.C. Code Ann. § 15-78-20(f) (Supp. 1996)(provisions of Act establishing exemptions to
liability must be liberally construed in favor of limiting the liability of the State).
Finally, we agree with appellant the Highway Department was on notice the
original bumps in the intersection were causing property damage to vehicles. After
receipt of two property damage claims, the Highway Department made improvements to
the intersection. We find nothing in the record, however, which suggests the Highway
Department was on notice the wedging was insufficient to correct the allegedly dangerous
5 Appellant's sister, the driver of the automobile, admitted in her deposition she saw the
"road construction" and "bump" signs. knew the speed limit was 40 mph, but was driving
55 to 60 mph at the time of the accident.
SUMMER v. CARPENTER
condition at the intersection. In fact, the evidence indicates to the contrary: there were no
reported damage claims after the wedging. Accordingly, we conclude the Highway
Department was not on notice of problems at the intersection after the wedging and,
therefore, had no duty to make further improvements to the intersection.
Appellant contends the trial judge erred by ruling the Highway Department
would have been immune from suit pursuant to § 15-78-60 (5) which provides immunity
from liability for acts arising out of the exercise of discretion by a government agency.
Section 15-78-60 (5) provides:
The governmental entity is not liable for loss resulting from ... the exercise
of discretion or judgment by the governmental entity or employee or the
performance or failure to perform any act or service which is in the
discretion or judgment of the governmental entity or employee....
Mere room for discretion on the part of the entity is not sufficient to invoke
the discretionary immunity provision. Discretionary immunity is contingent on proof the
government entity, faced with alternatives, actually weighed competing considerations
and made a conscious choice. Further, the entity must establish, in weighing the
competing considerations and alternatives, it utilized accepted professional standards
appropriate to resolve the issue. Strange v. S.C. Dept. of Highways. & Public Transportation, 314 S.C. 427, 445 S.E.2d 439 (1994); Foster v. S.C. Highways & Public Transportation, 306 S.C. 519, 413 S.E.2d 31 (1992). The government entity bears the
burden of establishing discretionary immunity as an affirmative defense. Niver v. S.C. Dept. of Highways & Public Transportation,. 302 S.C. 461. 395 S.E.2d 728 (Ct. App.
Respondent presented evidence which indicates (1) the design used for the
intersection was common and (2) while respondent's expert would have selected another
design, the chosen design was not wrong. This evidence does not establish respondent
considered various design options for the intersection and then selected the chosen design
6 For purposes of this argument, we are ignoring the Highway Department's defense of
design immunity. Section 15-79-60 (15).
SUMMER v. CARPENTER
plan after carefully weighing competing considerations. 7 Accordingly, the trial judge
erred in concluding the Highway Department would have been immune from liability
under the discretionary exception to the Act as a matter of law. Id.
Appellant argues the trial judge erred by concluding the Highway
Department would have been immune from suit under § 15-78-60 (15) since it was
protected by an indemnity bond. Appellant asserts respondent did not establish the
indemnity bond purchased by Lineberger would have covered the Highway Department
in a negligence action. We agree.
In relevant part, S.C. Code Ann. § 15-78-60 (15) provides:
Governmental entities are not liable for loss on public ways under
construction when the entity is protected by an indemnity bond.
Although the statute simply refers to the presence of an indemnity bond, it
is our opinion the legislature intended this provision to exempt a governmental entity
from liability when the indemnity bond actually protects the governmental entity from
liability for negligence. Otherwise, an "indemnity bond" which does not provide
coverage in the event of negligence would nonetheless be considered to provide immunity
from negligence actions of government entities. Kiriakides v. United Artists Communications, Inc., 312 S.C. 271, 440 S.E.2d 364 (1994)(however plain the ordinary
meaning of the words used in a statute may be, the courts will reject that meaning if to
accept it would lead to a result so plainly absurd that it could not possibly have been
intended by the legislature or would defeat the plain legislative intention).
It is undisputed the Highway Department was protected by a bond entitled
"Performance and Indemnity Bond" for the Hollis Lakes Road and Heckle Boulevard
construction project. The language in the body of this bond, however, does not indicate
an agreement by the surety to indemnify the Highway Department against a third party
claim for personal injury as a result of the construction project, but simply to protect the
Highway Department from costs if Lineberger failed to perform under the terms of the
7 According to the affidavit of one of appellant's engineering experts, the intersection
was improperly designed and the design was below the standard of care for civil
SUMMER v. CARPENTER
contract.8 Accordingly, the trial judge erred in holding the indemnity bond exception
would have applied in appellant's action against the Highway Department. Strange, supra
(burden of establishing limitation on liability under Tort Claims Act is on government
entity asserting it as affirmative defense).
Appellant argues the trial judge erred by concluding the presence or
absence of the Highway Department from her underlying suit was immaterial since, under
the doctrine of joint and several liability, appellant would have been entitled to a full
recovery from Lineberger. We agree.
If suit had been instituted against Lineberger and the Highway Department,
appellant asserts Lineberger would have claimed the Highway Department's negligence
alone proximately caused appellant's injuries since it designed/maintained the intersection
and Lineberger only followed the Department's specifications in constructing the
intersection. By affidavit, appellant's counsel in her action against Lineberger stated
"[t]he presence of the [Highway Department] would have most likely resulted in a much
higher settlement or verdict for [appellant]."
Based on the evidence presented, if suit had been filed against both
Lineberger and the Highway Department, we agree Lineberger would have likely claimed
it simply followed the Highway Department's plans and specifications in constructing the
intersection. Nonetheless, as noted above and correctly determined by the trial judge, the
Highway Department would have been immune from suit under the design immunity
provision of the Act. Section 15-78-60 (15). Accordingly, joint and several liability
would have been inapplicable since only one tortfeasor, Lineberger, would have existed.
See generally M & T Chemicals, Inc. v. Barker Industries. Inc., 296 S.C. 103, 370 S.E.2d
886 (Ct. App. 1988)(under the doctrine of joint and several liability, joint tortfeasors are
liable for the plaintiff's damages, both jointly and severally).
For reasons stated above, the order of the trial Judge is AFFIRMED IN
PART AND REVERSED IN PART.
FINNEY, C.J., MOORE and WALLER, JJ., concur. TOAL, A.J., dissenting
in separate opinion.
8 South Carolina Code Ann. § 57-5-1660 (1991) requires highway department
contractors to fumish a "performance and indemnity bond" with a surety sufficient to
satisfy the full amount of the contract.
SUMMER v. CARPENTER
TOAL, A.J.: I respectfully dissent as to Issue I, the potential negligent maintenance
claim against Highway Department. However, I first must note that there are, in fact,
few points of disagreement between me and the majority. In Issues II (discretionary
immunity issue), III (indemnity bond immunity issue), and IV (joint and several
liability issue) of this case, the majority has found error by the trial court. I agree
wholly with the majority's reasoning and conclusions recording those issues.
However, I respectfully disagree about the merits of Issue I, the only issue on
which the majority affirms the trial court's grant of summary judgment. In my
opinion, Respondent Carpenter ("Lawyer") was not entitled to summary judgment in
this legal malpractice action. I believe Appellant Summer's ("Passenger") potential
negligent maintenance claim against Highway Department had at least some factual and
legal basis and at least some chance of success. Accordingly, there existed a genuine
issue of material fact regarding whether Lawyer was negligent for failing to sue
First, contrary to the majority's claim, Passenger's negligent maintenance
argument is preserved for appeal. One of the relevant questions in this case is whether
this issue should be characterized as one of negligent design or of negligent
maintenance. By characterizing it as a design issue, the trial court's order implicitly
ruled on the negligent maintenance issue. I believe it is overly technical to require
Passenger to have brought a Rule 59(e) motion when the import of the trial court's
order was perfectly clear.
Additionally, however, some of the evidence in the Record suggests the issue
was a maintenance issue and that Highway Department was negligent in its maintenance
of the intersection. Dr. Parsonson, an engineering professor at Georgia Tech, opined
by affidavit that Highway Department's attempt to correct the bumps in the road "was
unreasonable and inadequate and below the standard of care expected for highway
maintenance at the time in question." (emphasis added). Dr. Parsonson concluded
Highway Department had been negligent both in its design and in its maintenance of the
intersection in question. Similarly, Jeffrey Clark, a reconstruction and forensic
engineer, stated the surface of the road should have been smooth. Clark's affidavit
suggests Hiahway Department's actions in performinc, the wedging procedure at the
intersection were inadequate to correct the original problem.
In my opinion, the expert testimony, as well as the testimony concerning
Highway Department's actual knowledge of the danger of the intersection and its
decision to employ "wedging" to correct the problem, should preclude any grant of
summary judgment to Lawyer. When viewed in the light most favorable to Passenger,
see, e.g., Manning v. Quinn, 294 S.C. 383, 365 S.E.2d 24 (1988)(in summary
SUMMER v. CARPENTER
judgment motion, all evidence and its inferences must be viewed in light most favorable
to nonmoving party), the evidence presented to the trial judge demonstrated a genuine
issue of material fact regarding Passenger's ability to prevail on the negligent
maintenance issue. To survive a summary judgment motion, Passenger need have
shown no more.
I note this does not mean Passenger necessarily should prevail against Lawyer.
At trial, Passenger would have to demonstrate that the negligent maintenance claim
probably would have succeeded, and it is certainly possible she could not meet her
burden.1a At the summary judgment stage, however, Passenger need not prove her
case. Rather, she need only demonstrate there is a genuine issue of material fact
regarding the merits of her claim; i.e., she must show that she has a case to begin with.
I believe Passenger has met that burden and would not, therefore, deny her her day in
For the foregoing reasons, I concur as to Issues II, III, and IV, and dissent as to
1a In my view, the majority erred by weighing the evidence rather than simply
determining whether the evidence presented a genuine issue of material fact, the
appropriate test for summary judgment.