Standards of Review on Appeal: Actions at Law or In Equity?

A recent post covered the South Carolina courts’ differing standards of review for a trial judge’s legal conclusions and the fact-finder’s findings of fact. The universe of factual findings further breaks down into two more categories.

Actions at Law vs. Actions in Equity

The standard of review of factual findings differ if the findings are made in an action at law and in an action in equity. Townes Assoc., Ltd. v. City of Greenville, 266 S.C. 81, 85-86, 221 S.E.2d 773, 775-776 (1976), has become the classic decision on this difference.  It held:

  • in an action at law, factual findings will not be disturbed unless there is no evidence which reasonably supports the finding. This is true whether the case is tried to a jury or to the trial judge.
  • in an action in equity, the Supreme Court may find facts in accordance with its views of the preponderance of the evidence. This is true if the case is tried to a judge alone or if the case is tried to a master and the master and trial judge later disagree.
  • in action in equity, tried first by a master and concurred in by the judge, the factual findings will not be disturbed unless the finding lacks any evidentiary support or is against the clear preponderance of the evidence.

In equity cases, the Court’s ability to find facts does not mean that disregards the trial judge’s findings, particularly his or her credibility findings. Factual findings will still be affirmed unless the appellant satisfies the Court that the preponderance of the evidence is against the finding of the court. Lewis v. Lewis, 392 S.C. 381, 709 S.E.2d 650 (2011).

A real-world application

I am currently relying on the differing standards of review for actions at law and in equity to defend a jury verdict in a car crash case. The trial judge and Court of Appeals reviewed the evidence and agreed that the evidence supports the amount of the verdict. Curtis vs. Blake, 392 S.C. 494, 709 S.E.2d 79 (Ct.App. 2011). The Supreme Court recently granted certiorari.

To argue that the verdict is excessive, the defendant contends that the victim and the victim’s wife lied about the extent of his pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of enjoyment of life. He also fails to address the medical evidence that the physical injuries are permanent.

This directly implicates the standard of review. Because a tort action for damages is an action at law, the Supreme Court’s review is limited to whether any evidence supports the verdict. Arguments over the evidence’s weight or credibility are misplaced. My brief explaining this is detail is here:  Curtis v. Blake – Respondent’s Supreme Court Brief. 

Has anyone else caught their opposing counsel misstating the standard of review? Or not saying what the standard is and using the wrong one?  Please let me know if so. You can reach me at www.attorneyroberthill.com.

 

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