As part of our ongoing series of legal case updates, Collins & Lacy Vice President and Shareholder, Attorney Christian Stegmaier, reviews a case involving the use of Stand Your Ground as a defense in civil cases involving third party assault where the Court of Appeals rules it is a permissible civil defense, but there is a procedure. Listen here.
Michael Burney: Welcome to The Legal Bench. I’m Michael Burney, Director of Business Development at Collins and Lacy Law Firm in Columbia, South Carolina. As part of our ongoing series of legal case updates, Collins and Lacy Vice President and Shareholder Attorney Christian Stegmaier reviews a case involving the use of stand your ground as a defense in civil cases involving third-party assault. Christian reports on how the Court of Appeals rules it is a permissible civil defense but there is a procedure.
Christian Stegmaier: The South Carolina Court of Appeals issued an Opinion on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Singletary v. Shuler. Singletary is a wrongful death and survival action that arose from a fight between Singletary’s decedent and Shuler in Shuler’s house following a get together that went awry. The case was tried before the Charleston County Master In Equity who awarded $1.5 million for the wrongful death claim and $100,000 for the survival action. At trial, Shuler argued that he was immune from civil action under the protection of Persons and Property Act, which is found in Section 16-11-410 through 450, because he had acted in self-defense. This Act is also known as the Stand Your Ground Act and is the codification of the common law principal known as the Castle Doctrine. At trial the Master found that Shuler was not entitled to immunity under the Act, because he failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was acting in self defense when he shot the defendant and more importantly for purposes of this appeal, had failed to file a pretrial motion to determine immunity. The Court of Appeals affirmed the master’s judgment. The things that we need to know about is this: 1) Whether a trial court is required to determine if a party is immune under the Act before a civil trial begins is a novel issue for our appellate courts. So, this was a case of first impression. With that said, the Court of Appeals held “[t]he Act’s language is clear and unambiguous that it was the legislature’s intent to extend immunity under the Act from both criminal prosecution and civil actions to law abiding citizens who were justified in their use of deadly force. So now we have caselaw in this state that states unambiguously that the Stand Your Ground Act is a defense that can be used in a third-party assault case. If you read the Opinion, the Court of Appeals also mentions the fact that it is an absolute defense and not just an affirmative defense. With regard to the procedure, the Court of Appeals noted that the South Carolina Court of Appeals ruled in State v. Duncan, which is a 2011 case, that a defendant claiming immunity from criminal prosecution under the Act must establish his entitlement to the relief prior to trial. In Singletary, the defendant did not make a pretrial motion seeking such relief. So, accordingly, applying the tenons of Duncan, the Court of Appeals held that the Master did not err in finding Shuler was required to seek a pretrial determination of his immunity under the Act. With that holding, the Court did not go into any sort of analysis about whether or not Shuler had been in fact entitled to the immunity and the preponderance of the evidence issue since he did not follow the pretrial motion requirement. So, this case provides a great deal of instruction to anybody defendant and their counsel on the civil side who is defending a third-party assault case where this is a potential defense. It is clear and unambiguous now by virtue of this holding bench Stand Your Ground is in fact an absolute defense that exists on the civil side but just as important if it is a defense you want to make sure that you are asserting that defense and make this motion in the pretrial stage. The things that are undefined by the Court of Appeals is this: When do you in fact file that motion? That is unclear. On the criminal side, typically after indictment criminal defense counsel will make that motion to the circuit judge asserting this defense and the judge himself or herself will rule whether or not self-defense obviates or voids the indictment. So, it seems on its face that after you file an answer you would file contemporaneously motion to dismiss the case based on the Stand Your Ground Act. What the Court of Appeals also does not make clear is what standard does a circuit judge apply when presented with this motion at any stage prior to trial. The thing I can envision, which is typically the defense in a summary judgment action, is we haven’t had enough time to complete discovery, investigation is ongoing, there’s a sitella of evidence the fact that this is a trial issue for the jury. All those defenses, this isn’t a Rule 56 motion and arguably none of those standards apply in this case and so the argument I think you would make to the circuit judge at the pretrial stage is that he or she is the sole arbiter of whether or not the defendant in the case, or the defendant’s employ or whoever is the one being sued, was in such circumstance where the trigger created by the statute is in fact warranted and that the Rule 56 standards aren’t necessarily applicable. My feeling is that this is a big Opinion that has been handed down by the Court of Appeals and though it was a 3-0 decision, I would imagine, if I had to guess or bet money on it, that on petition for writ of cert the Supreme Court might pick this case up and investigate it too as well. My suggestion is just because of the language of the statute that I think the Supreme Court would probably uphold the decision that this Act is applicable in a civil context. What I would hope the Supreme Court would be able to do is provide additional guidance or direction about the when and where as far as the filing of a motion and give complete clarity to a circuit judge sitting in the common pleas arena about the standard that he or she should apply. So, we will have to see, but nevertheless a significant decision by the Court of Appeals this week.
MB: And of more legal news of interest to South Carolina businesses, join us right here for the next episode of The Legal Bench.