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2007-UP-542 - Marceron v. Helms

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

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals

John R. Marceron and Jeanne M. Marceron, Respondents,

v.

J. Reese Helms and Brenda Helms, Appellants.


Appeal From Horry County
 J. Stanton Cross, Jr., Master-In-Equity


Unpublished Opinion No.  2007-UP-542
Heard June 6, 2007 – Filed November 30, 2007 


AFFIRMED


Carl Scott Masel, of Myrtle Beach, for Appellants.

Mason Summers and Charles E. Carpenter, Jr., both of Columbia, for Respondents.

PER CURIAM:   Reese and Brenda Helms appeal the master-in-equity’s denial of their motion for non-suit claiming John and Jeanne Marceron failed to prove that the Helms breached the contract between the parties or that they suffered any damages as a result.  We affirm.

FACTS

The Helmses were the owners of a home located on a lot they leased inside of Ocean Lakes Family Campground (Ocean Lakes).[1]  The Helmses decided to subdivide their lease site (MH9) into three separate lease sites (MH9-A, MH9-B, and MH9-C).[2]  The Helmses hired a surveyor to survey their lease site to ensure that each new site would meet Ocean Lakes’ minimum size requirement. 

In the summer of 2003, the Marcerons and the Helmses began discussing the possibility of the Marcerons purchasing the lease rights to MH9.  As a result of these discussions, on June 7, 2004, the Marcerons entered into a contract with the Helmses to purchase MH9-C for $90,000.00.  The contract required the Helmses to provide a survey of MH9-C and gave the Marcerons a right of first refusal for MH9-A and MH9-B.  The contract provided that the closing would occur on June 8, 2007, and that MH9 would be subdivided to create MH9-C on or before October 1, 2004.  Also on June 7, 2004, John Marceron and Reese Helms met with Wayne Peeler, a builder the Helms had contacted about constructing a home on the site, at the lease site to ensure the proposed home would fit on the site.  At this meeting, Reese Helms gave John Marceron a survey of MH9 with the proposed subdivided lots marked on it. It is undisputed that this survey did not accurately depict the size of MH9-C or its existing boundaries as set by Ocean Lakes.  The inaccuracy in the survey was due to an earlier shifting of the boundary lines by Ocean Lakes to resolve a dispute with an adjoining neighbor.  The moving of the boundary lines resulted in an overall increase in the square footage of MH9-C and decrease in the lake frontage of MH9 as a whole.  Following the meeting, the Marcerons purchased the lease rights to MH9-C from the Helmses for the agreed upon price.

By letter dated June 15, 2004, Reese Helms informed the Marcerons he had received an offer of $180,000.00 for the lease rights to the remaining portions of MH9 and gave them until June 27, 2004 to exercise their right of first refusal by matching the offer.  By letter dated June 23, 2004, the Marcerons informed the Helmses they would purchase the lease rights to all of MH9 for the price of $260,000.00 and the earlier payment of $90,000.00 should be treated as a prepayment towards this transaction.  The letter also expressly stated: “This [agreement] does not change any agreement per our original contract on June 7, 2004.”  On July 2, 2003, the Marcerons paid the Helms the agreed upon amount and received a written lease from Ocean Lakes for MH9. 

The Marcerons claim they were not aware of the previous change in the boundary line until after their purchase of the lease rights.  After unsuccessfully attempting to resolve the boundary line issue with the Helms and Ocean Lakes, the Marcerons initiated this current action on October 18, 2004.  The Marcerons alleged the following causes of action: breach of contract; negligent misrepresentation; fraud; and breach with fraudulent intent.  The Marcerons sought damages in the amount of the difference between the values of the site as represented in the survey and the site as actually conveyed, punitive damages, and reasonable attorney fees and costs for the action.  By consent, the case was referred to the Horry County Master in Equity, J. Stanton Cross, Jr.  The matter was heard at trial on March 30, 2006.  At the conclusion of the Marcerons’ case, the Helms moved for a directed verdict on all issues.  The Master informed the Helms that they were really seeking an involuntary nonsuit, treated their motion as such, and denied their motion.  By final order filed June 9, 2006, the Master found in favor of the Marcerons for breach of contract and awarded damages in the amount of $26,000.00 which represented the difference in the value of the lot as contracted and the value of the lot as conveyed.  The Helms now appeal the Master’s denial of their motion for involuntary nonsuit claiming the Marcerons failed to prove the Helms breached the contract between the parties or that they suffered any damages as a result.  

STANDARD OF REVIEW

We note initially that while the Helms’ motion at the close of the evidence was couched as a “directed verdict” motion, governed by Rule 50, SCRCP, this was a non-jury action.  Rule 50, SCRCP, as noted by the master, is only applicable to jury trials.  The proper motion for the Helms’ to have made was a motion for involuntary non-suit under Rule 41(b), SCRCP.  “After the plaintiff in an action tried by the court without a jury has completed the presentation of his evidence, the defendant, . . . may move for a dismissal on the ground that upon the facts and the law the plaintiff has shown no right to relief.” Rule 41(b), SCRCP.  Rule 41(b), SCRCP, “allows the judge as fact finder to weigh the evidence, determine the facts and render a judgment against the plaintiff at the close of his case if justified.”  Johnson v. J.P. Stevens & Co., 308 S.C. 116, 118, 417 S.E.2d 527, 529 (1992).

In reviewing the rulings of a trial judge on motions for involuntary nonsuit, this Court must review the evidence and all inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.  Rewis v. Grand Strand Gen. Hosp., 290 S.C. 40, 41-2, 348 S.E.2d 173, 174 (1986). If more than one reasonable inference can be drawn from the evidence, the motion for nonsuit must be denied.  Id.  “In deciding a motion for nonsuit, the trial court must view the evidence and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.”  Bullard v. Ehrhardt, 283 S.C. 557, 558, 324 S.E.2d 61, 61 (1984). “If there is no relevant competent evidence reasonably tending to establish the material elements of the plaintiff’s case a motion for nonsuit must be granted.”  Id.

“A breach of contract seeking money damages is an action at law.”  South Carolina Fed. Sav. Bank v. Thornton-Crosby Dev. Co., 310 S.C. 232, 235, 423 S.E.2d 114, 116 (1992).  On appeal of an action at law tried without a jury, “the findings of fact of the trial court will not be disturbed unless found to be without evidence which reasonably supports the trial court’s findings. The rule is the same with or without a reference.”  Townes Assocs., Ltd. v. City of Greenville, 266 S.C. 81, 86, 221 S.E.2d 773, 775 (1976). The trial court’s findings are equivalent to a jury’s findings in a law action.  Chapman v. Allstate Ins. Co., 263 S.C. 565, 567, 211 S.E.2d 876, 877 (1975).  This court’s role is to determine whether any evidence reasonably supports the factual findings of the trial court.  Townes Assocs., Ltd., 266 S.C. at 86, 221 S.E.2d at 776.  Additionally, the appellate court can correct errors of law. Okatie River, L.L.C. v. Southeastern Site Prep, L.L.C., 353 S.C. 327, 334, 577 S.E.2d 468, 472 (Ct. App. 2003).

While the facts of this particular case are unique, the standard of review applies and operates here like in any other case.  Accordingly, if there was any evidence or reasonable inference to reasonably support the Macerons’ case, we must affirm the Master’s denial of the Helmses’ motion for involuntary nonsuit.  Likewise, if there is any evidence in the record which reasonably supports the Master’s final determination, we must affirm.

LAW/ANALYSIS

In an action for breach of contract, the plaintiff must prove the existence of a contract, its breach, and damages caused by the breach.  See Baughman v. Southern Ry. Co. 127 S.C. 493, 121 S.E. 356, 356 (1924).

The contract for MH9-C provided:

Conveyance Shall Be Made subject to all easements as well as covenants of record (providing they do not make title unmarketable) and all governmental [statutes], ordinances, rules and regulations: A survey map of leased lot 9C, section MH shall be provided by the seller prior to the closing date.

(Bolded in the original).  The Helmses claim this requirement does not apply because it was included in the contract for the lease rights to MH9-C and not in the agreement for MH9 in its entirety.  However, included in the letter in which the Marcerons exercised their right of first refusal to the remainder of MH9 is a provision that states: “This does not change any agreement per our original contract. . . .”  Furthermore, it is clear that the parties, while contracting for MH9-C, had considered a transfer of MH9 in its entirety.  The contract for MH9-C included the right of first refusal for the remainder of MH9 and the survey provided as part of the transaction for MH9-C was a survey of MH9 in its entirety. Accordingly, there is evidence in the record to support the Master’s finding that the Helmses were required to provide a survey as part of the contract for MH9.

Implicit in the requirement to provide a survey is the requirement that the survey which is provided be an accurate survey.  “Common sense and good faith are the leading touchstones of construction of the provisions of a contract; where one construction makes the provisions unusual or extraordinary and another construction which is equally consistent with the language employed, would make it reasonable, fair and just, the latter construction must prevail.”  C.A.N. Enters., Inc. v. South Carolina Health & Human Servs. Fin. Com’n  296 S.C. 373, 377, 373 S.E.2d 584, 586 (1988) (citing Farr v. Duke Power Co., 265 S.C. 356, 360, 218 S.E.2d 431, 434 (1975)).  It is undisputed that the survey provided by the Helmses was inaccurate. 

During the trial, Reese Helms testified that at the meeting, he informed John Maceron of the inaccuracy of the survey due to an earlier shifting of the boundary lines by Ocean Lakes to resolve a dispute with an adjoining neighbor.  Brenda Helms testified that she discussed the shift in the boundary line with John Marceron on the day of the meeting.  Wayne Peeler testified that Reese Helms informed John Marceron at the meeting that the boundary line had been moved.  He also testified that the measurements the three men used to lay out the home site reflected the change in the boundary line.  However, John Marceron testified that he was unaware of the inaccuracy of the survey or the change in the boundary line. 

Despite the conflicting testimony, the Master found the Marcerons were unaware of the inaccuracies in the survey.  Although John Marceron’s testimony conflicts with other evidence in the record, our standard of review dictates that we affirm if any evidence exists in the record to reasonably support the findings of the Master and does not allow us to weigh the evidence. Accordingly, we find evidence to support the Master’s finding that Marcerons were unaware of the inaccuracies in the survey.  See Sherman v. W & B Enters., Inc. 357 S.C. 243, 250, 592 S.E.2d 307, 310 (Ct. App. 2003).

The Helmses’ argue that because the dimensions and boundaries of lots in Ocean Lakes are subject to change conferring lease rights to sites of set dimensions is impossible.  We are not persuaded by this argument.  By the terms of the contract, the Helmses agreed to provide a survey of the lot to be conveyed. The inaccuracies in the survey were material to the contract because the survey provided the only means by which the Marcerons could determine the land of which they were purchasing the lease rights.  The moved boundary line served as the boundary between the MH9 and the adjoining lease site.  Accordingly, the physical change to the boundary line which was not reflected in the survey equally affected lot MH9 in its entirety and the proposed lot MH9-C.   

The Helms claim that because the value of the lease site now exceeds the amount the Marcerons paid, the Marcerons cannot show any resulting damages.  This argument is unpersuasive.  “In a breach of contract action, damages serve to place the nonbreaching party in the position he would have enjoyed had the contract been performed.”  South Carolina Federal Sav. Bank v. Thornton-Crosby Development Co., Inc.  303 S.C. 74, 77, 399 S.E.2d 8,10 - 11 (Ct. App.1990).  The Marceron sought damages based on the correct measure: the difference in the value of the lot as contracted for and the value of the lot as conveyed.

“In South Carolina, a property owner is competent to offer testimony as to the value of his property.” Abercrombie v. Abercrombie, 372 S.C. 643, 647, 643 S.E.2d 697, 699 (Ct. App. 2007) (citing Cooper v. Cooper, 289 S.C. 377, 379, 346 S.E.2d 326, 327 (Ct. App. 1986)).  The rule that a property owner is competent to present an opinion as to the property’s value is well recognized. Lewis v. South Carolina State Highway Dept., 278 S.C. 170, 173, 293 S.E.2d 434, 436 (1982).

John Marceron testified that the value of the lease site was based heavily on the amount of lake frontage the lot had.  He testified that the lot as represented in the survey had a total of 153 feet of lake frontage, but the lot as conveyed only had 138 feet of lake frontage.  He testified that the difference between the two measurements equaled ten percent of the total lake frontage as represented in the survey.  He also testified that the increase in the total amount of square footage did not increase the value of the lease site.  He stated the additional land was valueless to him because it was made up of a roadway and an unsightly berm.  He also testified that the total purchase price for MH9 was $260,000.00 and explained that he was seeking ten percent of the total purchase in damages as result of the reduction in lake frontage.  Accordingly, there is evidence in the record support the Master’s findings as to damages.      

CONCLUSION

For the reasons stated above, the order of the Master is

AFFIRMED.

STILWELL, SHORT, and WILLIAMS JJ., concur.


[1] The lots located inside Ocean Lakes are referred to as lease sites because they are owned by Ocean Lakes and are leased to individuals who construct or position homes upon them.  Ocean Lakes, at all times, retains the right to adjust and move the boundary lines of any and all lease sites.  Accordingly, the lease sites do not have permanently set boundary lines.      

[2] Ocean Lakes allows individuals to subdivide their lease sites as long as each proposed site will have at least 3,000 square feet based on the existing boundaries as set by Ocean Lakes.