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2004-UP-154 - Mappin Industries v. Mullins

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE. IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN NAY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 239(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals

Mappin Industries, Inc., and Roberta L. Mappin,        Appellants,

v.

Larry V. Mullins and CMC & Associates,        Respondents.


Appeal From Greenville County
Joseph J. Watson, Circuit Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No. 2004-UP-154
Submitted February 9, 2004 – Filed March 9, 2004


AFFIRMED


D. Garrison  Hill, of Greenville, for Appellants.

W. Howard Boyd, Jr. and Fred W. Suggs, III, both of Greenville, for Respondents.

PER CURIAM: This case involves a change of life insurance beneficiary form executed but not received by the insurance company’s home office before the insured’s death.  The owners of the policy brought this action against the insurance broker responsible for delivering the change of beneficiary form, alleging his failure constituted breach of contract and negligence.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the broker.  We affirm.

FACTS

In 1997, Mappin Industries obtained a loan from SouthTrust Bank.  Roberta Mappin, the sole shareholder of Mappin Industries, signed for the loan, and Charles Theodore, a business associate of both Roberta and her husband George, cosigned for the loan.  As a condition of the loan, SouthTrust required that Mappin Industries buy insurance policies on the lives of both Roberta and Charles in the amount of one million dollars each.  Mappin Industries bought these required policies from First Colony Life Insurance Company through Larry V. Mullins, an insurance broker in Greenville.  The proceeds of the polices were assigned to SouthTrust.

Mappin Industries’ loan was subsequently acquired by Carolina First Bank, which did not require an assignment of life insurance proceeds.  However, Mappin Industries continued to pay the premiums on the policies.

In the latter part of 1999, Charles informed the Mappins that he had cancer and requested that they allow his wife, Patricia, to be the beneficiary of a portion of the life insurance policy Mappin Industries had on his life.  Pursuant to this conversation, George Mappin, as president of Mappin Industries, executed a First Colony Insurance change of beneficiary form making Roberta Mappin and Patricia Theodore each fifty percent beneficiaries of the policy. The Mappins also testified that they instructed Mullins to obtain a release of the assignment of the policy death benefits from South Trust Bank and obtain an assignment of the proceeds in favor of Carolina First Bank in the amount of $820,000.  Thus, in the event of Charles’ death, Mappin Industries’ loan from Carolina First would be paid off, and the remaining $180,000 would be split between Roberta Mappin and Patricia Theodore.  Mullins testified that he delivered the change of beneficiary form to his administrative assistant, who forwarded the form to First Colony Insurance. However, Mullins denied ever being told to assign proceeds to Carolina First.

On December 1, 1999, another change of beneficiary form was executed by George Mappin.  Under this second change, Roberta Mappin was to receive eighty percent of the proceeds under the policy and Patricia Theodore was to receive twenty percent. With this arrangement, upon Charles’ death, Roberta would receive $800,000, Patricia would receive $200,000, and there was no assignment to the bank.  As with the first change, Mullins claims he forwarded the second change form to First Colony’s home office.

Charles Theodore died on December 18, 1999. On January 6, 2000, Roberta Mappin and Patricia Theodore submitted their claims to Mullins for the one million dollar death benefit—claiming their respective $800,000 and $200,000 shares.  Mullins forwarded the claims to First Colony.

First Colony, however, claimed it had not received the second, December 1, 1999, change form. Due to this discrepancy in its records, First Colony filed a petition of interpleader to determine what share of the proceeds each beneficiary was entitled to receive. First Colony agreed to pay Mappin $500,000 and Theodore $200,000, and paid the disputed $300,000 into the court.

Mappin and Theodore were able to resolve their dispute outside of court, agreeing to a fifty-fifty split of the $300,000.  The parties also agreed to the entry of a consent order dismissing the interpleader action and releasing First Colony from any further claims. Mullins, however, was excluded from the release of liability.

Ultimately, Roberta Mappin and Mappin Industries (collectively “Mappin”) brought the present action against Mullins, claiming he had breached his contract and was negligent in failing to ensure that the second change of beneficiary form was received and acknowledged by First Colony. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Mullins, finding there was no genuine issue of material fact.  In its summary judgment order, the trial court also denied Mappin’s motion to amend its complaint to state additional causes of action.  Mappin appeals both of these rulings.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A trial court should grant a motion for summary judgment when “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Rule 56(c), SCRCP; see also Fleming v. Rose, 350 S.C. 488, 493, 567 S.E.2d 857, 860 (2002).  “In determining whether any triable issues of fact exist, the evidence and all inferences which can be reasonably drawn from the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Strother v. Lexington County Recreation Comm’n, 332 S.C. 54, 61, 504 S.E.2d 117, 121 (1998).  If triable issues of fact exist, those issues must go to the jury. Young v. S.C. Dep’t of Corr., 333 S.C. 714, 717, 511 S.E.2d 413, 415 (Ct. App. 1999).

LAW/ANALYSIS

I.       Motion for Summary Judgment

Mappin argues the trial court erred in granting Mullins’ motion for summary judgment on the claims for breach of contract and negligence.  Specifically, Mappin asserts Mullins breached his duty of care under contract and common law by failing to ensure that the change of beneficiary form was received and acknowledged by First Colony’s home office prior to Charles Theodore’s death.  We disagree.

It is well-settled that “[a]n essential element in a cause of action for negligence is the existence of a legal duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff.  Without a duty, there is no actionable negligence.” Bishop v. S.C. Dep’t of Mental Health, 331 S.C. 79, 86, 502 S.E.2d 78, 81 (1998).  As a general rule, “insurance agents and brokers ‘are required to exercise due care in placing insurance and would be personally liable for the neglect of that duty.’” Riddle-Duckworth, Inc. v. Sullivan, 253 S.C. 411, 420, 171 S.E.2d 486, 490 (1969) (quoting La Tourette v. McMaster, 104 S.C. 501, 89 S.E. 398 (1916)).

In the present case, however, Mappin has failed to show any facts indicating Mullins owed a duty to deliver Mappin’s change of beneficiary form prior to Theodore’s death.  On the contrary, under South Carolina law, an insured has effectively changed a beneficiary under a life insurance policy when he has “substantially complied with the method prescribed by the policy language for changing the beneficiary.” Life of Georgia Ins. Co. v. Bolton, 333 S.C. 406, 411, 509 S.E.2d 488, 491 (1998).  As in the present case, the plaintiffs in Bolton argued that the failure of the insurance company to receive a change of beneficiary form in its home office rendered the change ineffective. Id. The supreme court rejected this argument, finding the change was effective as of the time the owner or insured executed a change of beneficiary form. Id. 

In the present case, the terms of the insurance policy regarding the procedure for executing a change of beneficiary did not require that the form be delivered or acknowledged by First Colony’s home office in order to be effective.  The policy provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

CHANGE OF OWNER AND BENEFICIARY.  The Owner may change the designations of Owner and Beneficiary during the Insured’s lifetime.  Any change is subject to the consent of an irrevocable beneficiary.  Written notice of change must be filed at the home office in a form acceptable to the company.  The new designation will then take effect as of the date the Owner signed the notice.  Such a change does not affect any payment made or other action taken by the Company before the notice is received.

Although Mullins was required to provide written notice to First Colony’s home office under this provision, the language did not condition the effectiveness of the change of beneficiary upon First Colony’s receipt of the form or otherwise mandate delivery of the form within an essential time period.  Mullins did not, therefore, have a duty—under principles of contract or common law—to ensure First Colony received the change of beneficiary form at its home office prior to Charles Theodore’s death in order for it to be effective. 

II.      Motion to Amend

Mappin also appeals the trial court’s denial of its motion to amend its complaint to assert three additional claims.  Under Rule 15(a), SCRCP, the trial court may grant a party leave to amend a complaint or other pleading and shall do so “freely” “when justice so requires and does not prejudice any other party.”  The trial judge’s finding will not be overturned absent an abuse of discretion or unless manifest injustice has occurred. Berry v. McCloud, 328 S.C. 435, 450, 492 S.E.2d 794, 802 (Ct. App. 1997).  We find no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s denial of Mappin’s motion to amend.

In its motion to amend, Mappin first sought to assert a new claim alleging Mullins was negligent in failing to obtain an assignment of the policy in favor of Carolina First Bank.  Mappin had requested Mullins make this assignment following the November 11, 1999, conference at which George Mappin executed the first change of beneficiary form.  As both Roberta and George Mappin acknowledged in their deposition testimony, however, this agreement was superseded by the December 1, 1999, agreement under which Mappin and Charles Theodore agreed to provide $200,000 from the death benefits to Patricia Theodore.  In light of this agreement—which gave rise to the need for the second change of beneficiary—George and Roberta Mappin testified they no longer wished to have the assignment made in favor of the bank.  By the Mappins’ own testimony, therefore, the question of whether Mullins was negligent in failing to obtain an assignment of the insurance proceeds in favor of the bank is wholly irrelevant to the present case.

Next, Mappin asked the trial court to add a claim that Mullins should be barred by res judicata and collateral estoppel from taking a position contrary to the position taken by First Colony in the interpleader action.  This request is also without merit.

Res judicata bars subsequent actions by the same parties when the claims arise out of the same transaction or occurrence that was the subject of a prior action between these parties.  Nelson v. QHG of S.C. Inc., 354 S.C. 290, 304, 580 S.E.2d 171, 178 (Ct. App. 2003).  Likewise, the doctrine of collateral estoppel precludes relitigation of claims in subsequent suits involving the same parties or those in privity with the previous parties. Carrigg v. Cannon, 347 S.C. 75, 79-80, 552 S.E.2d 767, 770 (Ct. App. 2001) (holding that “[u]nder the doctrine of collateral estoppel, once a final judgment on the merits has been reached in a prior claim, the relitigation of those issues actually and necessarily litigated and determined in the first suit are precluded as to the parties and their privies in any subsequent action based upon a different claim” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

In the present case, Mullins was not a party to the interpleader action initiated by First Colony.  Nor can it be argued that Mullins was in privity with any party to that action, as demonstrated by the fact that Mullins was specifically excluded from the settlement reached in the interpleader action.  Therefore, Mappin’s attempt to argue that Mullins is now barred from asserting his affirmative defenses in the instant action is manifestly without merit.

Finally, Mappin sought to amend its complaint to request additional damages to compensate for the attorney’s fees and costs it incurred in defending the interpleader action.  As discussed above, however, Mullins breached no duty under contract or common law which gave rise to the interpleader action.  The fees and costs were incurred solely by reason of First Colony’s wrongful refusal to honor the second change of beneficiary form which was executed on December 1, 1999.  Accordingly, there is no basis under the applicable South Carolina law to allow Mappin to recover the fees and costs incurred in defending the interpleader action.

CONCLUSION

We conclude the trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of Mullins, finding no evidence of any duty owed under contract or common law theories of recovery.  Additionally, we find the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Mappin’s motion to amend.  The ruling of the trial court is therefore

AFFIRMED.

HEARN, C.J., ANDERSON and BEATTY, JJ., concur.