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2011-UP-004 - Hall's Custom Homes v. Vista Realty Partners

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE.  IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 268(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals

Hall's Custom Homes, LLC. Respondent

v.

Vista Realty Partners, LLC and Long Grove Vista, LLC. Appellants


Appeal From Charleston County
 J. C. Buddy Nicholson, Jr., Circuit Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No.   2011-UP-004
Submitted October 1, 2010 – Filed January 20, 2011


AFFIRMED


G. Hamlin O'Kelly, III, of Mt. Pleasant, for Appellants.

Frank M. Cisa, of Mt. Pleasant, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM: In this mechanic's lien action, Vista Realty Partners and Long Grove Vista, LLC. (collectively Vista Realty) appeal the trial court's award of $65,994.56 plus prejudgment interest and attorney's fees to Hall's Custom Homes, Inc.  We affirm.[1]

FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On April 1, 2005 John Hall of Hall's Custom Homes and Richard Blatt of Vista Realty entered into a contract for the repair of decks on an apartment complex.  The parties' initial agreement was for the repair of 4 apartment units in Building 300.  The contract provided Vista Realty would pay $3,100.00 or actual costs for material, $3,200.00 for rental of equipment, and labor billed at $35.00 per man hour.  The contract noted: "Pricing will vary depending on amount of rot found." 

After Hall's Custom Homes began work on Building 300, Blatt visited the worksite and authorized Hall's Custom Homes to proceed with repairing the other decks on the building.  On April 14, 2005, Hall's Custom Homes submitted an invoice to Vista Realty for $29,000.00. It then substituted another invoice to include the work completed through April 20, 2005 for $42,921.17.  In response, Blatt sent Hall's Custom Homes a memo stating he was "shocked" by the invoice.  Vista Realty requested Hall's Custom Homes submit a more detailed invoice.  Hall's Custom Homes sent Vista Realty an updated invoice for $62,895.00.  When Vista Realty failed to pay the invoice, Hall's Custom Homes completed the repairs on the 12 decks on which it had worked to make them safe and then stopped work. 

On May 5, 2005 Hall's Custom Homes filed a mechanic's lien claiming $65,994.56 plus interest was owed to it by Vista Realty.  It filed this action to foreclose the lien on June 14, 2005, also asserting claims for breach of contract and quasi-contract.  Vista Realty filed a bond to release the mechanic's lien.  It answered the complaint denying Hall's Custom Homes' allegations and asserting as defenses Hall's Custom Homes' claims were barred by lack of a license and the statute of frauds. 

After a bench trial, the trial court found the contract was not ambiguous.  It awarded Hall's Custom Homes $65,994.56.  It left the record open for Hall's Custom Homes to submit its affidavit for attorney's fees and costs and for Vista Realty to file a post-trial motion.  The court subsequently denied Vista Realty's motion to alter or amend, granted Hall's Custom Homes pre-judgment interest, and awarded Hall's Custom Homes $9,208.05 in fees and costs.  This appeal followed. 

STANDARD OF REVIEW

This is an action at law.[2]  McCall v. IKON, 380 S.C. 649, 658, 670 S.E.2d 695, 700 (Ct. App. 2008) ("An action for breach of contract seeking money damages is an action at law."); Seckinger v. Vessel Excalibur, 326 S.C. 382, 386, 483 S.E.2d 775, 777 (Ct. App. 1997) (stating an action to enforce a mechanic's lien is an action at law).  "In an action at law, on appeal of a case tried without a jury, the findings of fact of the judge will not be disturbed upon appeal unless found to be without evidence which reasonably supports the judge's findings." Townes Assocs. v. City of Greenville, 266 S.C. 81, 86, 221 S.E.2d 773, 775 (1976).

LAW/ANALYSIS

A.  Expert witness

Vista Realty argues the trial court erred in refusing to admit Blatt as an expert witness.  We disagree. 

Reversal of a trial court's qualification of an expert witness requires the appellant to prove both an abuse of discretion and prejudice.  Austin v. Stokes-Craven Holding Corp., 387 S.C. 22, 37, 691 S.E.2d 135, 142 (2010).  An abuse of discretion occurs when the decision of the trial court is unsupported by the evidence or controlled by an error of law.  Id. at 37, 691 S.E.2d at 143. 

"Lay witnesses are permitted to offer testimony in the form of opinions or inferences if the opinions or inferences are rationally based on the witness'  perception, and will aid the fact-finder in understanding testimony, and do not require special knowledge."  State v. Douglas, 380 S.C. 499, 502, 671 S.E.2d 606, 608 (2009).  Furthermore, the fact that a witness is qualified as an expert does not require the fact finder to accord his or her testimony any greater weight than that given to any other witness.  Id. at 503, 671 S.E.2d at 609.  The same tests that are commonly applied in the evaluation of ordinary evidence are to be used in judging the weight and sufficiency of expert testimony.  Id.

When the trial court asked Vista Realty to clarify what field of expertise it was offering Blatt as an expert, its attorney responded:  "We offer this witness as the owner's representative, the defendant's representative on this project."  The court then stated:  "Well, he doesn't have to be an expert for that."  While the court did not qualify Blatt as an expert, it did state Blatt could testify as an owner.  As Vista Realty failed to state a field that in fact required an expert witness, we find the trial court did not abuse its discretion in declining to qualify Blatt as an expert witness. 

Furthermore, we find no prejudice resulted from the ruling.  Vista Realty asserts the trial court did not allow Blatt's expert testimony as to the costs that should have been allowed for the decking repairs by Hall's Custom Homes and as to the quality of the work performed.  However, Blatt testified without objection that his personal expectation for the cost of the repairs was "just over $1000.00 per deck."  In addition, he testified he was "shocked" by Hall's Custom Homes' bill and that it was "dramatically higher than what was expected at that stage of completion."  The trial court also allowed Blatt to testify that he paid the new contractor $385,000 for repairs to 232 decks.  In addition, the trial court allowed Blatt to testify that all of the decks Hall's Custom Homes worked on required remedial work by the new contractor.  As Vista Realty failed to provide this court with any examples of testimony it was not allowed to present due to the trial court's ruling, we find Vista Realty was not prejudiced by the trial court's denial of its request to have Blatt admitted as an expert witness.  

2.  Consideration of Blatt's testimony

Vista Realty argues the trial court erred in refusing to consider Blatt's testimony concerning the proper amount to be charged for the deck work.  We disagree.   

Although, as stated above, Blatt testified he believed the amount Hall's Custom Homes sought was unreasonable, Hall's Custom Homes offered evidence to support its claim.  John Hall described the work his company performed on the decks.  He testified the scope of the work his company performed was greater than that performed by the second contractor Vista Realty hired to complete the project.  He submitted invoices for the materials used and time sheets for labor.  Hall testified he worked on a similar project with a different crew and the hours spent on that project were in line with the Vista Realty project. 

"Credibility determinations regarding testimony are a matter for the finder of fact, who has the opportunity to observe the witnesses, and those determinations are entitled to great deference on appeal."  Okatie River, L.L.C. v. Southeastern Site Prep, L.L.C., 353 S.C. 327, 338, 577 S.E.2d 468, 474 (Ct. App. 2003).  The trial court explained Blatt's expectation that the cost would be $1000.00 a deck was unrealistic as the materials and rentals alone exceeded that amount.  We find no error in the trial court's determination Hall's testimony was more credible than Blatt's.  We hold the record contains evidence to support the trial court's award to Hall's Custom Homes. 

CONCLUSION

For the above state reasons, the order of the trial court is

AFFIRMED. 

FEW, C.J., and HUFF and GEATHERS, JJ. concur. 


[1] We decide this case without oral argument pursuant to Rule 215, SCACR.

[2] The trial court found a valid contract existed.  Accordingly, it did not reach Hall Custom Homes' equitable claim.