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No new trial awarded in case of confusing jury award

By: David Donovan//July 22, 2015

No new trial awarded in case of confusing jury award

By: David Donovan//July 22, 2015

Although it was unclear how much a jury intended to award in punitive damages, the South Carolina Court of Appeals declined to find that it was so excessive that it shocked the conscience of the court to the point that it should have ordered a new trial.

The plaintiff in the case, Matthew McAlhaney, said that his girlfriend was locked in a custody dispute over her children with her former father-in-law and the children’s grandfather, Richard McElveen. McAlhaney alleged that, in an effort to gain advantage in the custody dispute, McElveen claimed that McAlhaney was a drug addict, a child abuser, and a child molester.

Those allegations, McAlhaney said, were made to both neighbors and investigators from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office — and even in a letter to then-Gov. Mark Sanford — and caused him to spend a night in jail.

McAlhaney sued McElveen for libel, slander, and abuse of process. A Beaufort County jury found in McAlhaney’s favor, awarding him actual damages of $1,000 for libel, $61,000 for slander, and $25,000 for abuse of process. The jury awarded punitive damages of $3.25 million on the libel cause of action and $3.25 million on the slander cause of action.

After the trial, Beaufort County Circuit Court Judge J. Ernest Kinard reduced the punitive damages award to $375,000, but McElveen argued that the verdicts were so excessive that they implied that the figure was reached due to passion, prejudice, or some other improper motive. He asked the court to toss out the verdict entirely and order a new trial.

Kinard denied the motion for a new trial. On July 15, the Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling, noting first that it was unclear whether the jury meant to award McAlhaney $3.25 million in punitive damages and denoted it in both of the places on the verdict form, or whether it meant to award a total of $6.5 million in punitive damages. The uncertainty over the jury’s intent was significant given the amounts involved, the court said, but that “this court has recently recognized the time to clarify ambiguities in a jury verdict is before the jury is discharged.”

“If the jury considered McElveen’s conduct as one course of action and intended to make one punitive damages award of $3.25 million, the ratio of actual damages—$87,000—to punitive damages is far more reasonable than if the jury had intended to award $3.25 million on the libel cause of action alone,” Chief Judge John Few wrote for a unanimous court.

“In the latter scenario, the ratio of punitive to actual damages is 3,250 to 1. In the former scenario, the ratio—37.36 to 1—is still high under the due process clause, but far less likely to shock the conscience of the court and require a new trial absolute under state law.”

The court also found that, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to McAlhaney, as it was required to do on appeal, the jury could find that McElveen maliciously lied on repeated occasions by accusing McAlhaney of the most heinous crimes, despite knowing he was innocent and with disregard for the consequences, in order to illegally influence the outcome of a family court proceeding.

“As the trial court so aptly understated, we ‘need to sustain this most powerful message . . . that that’s bad conduct,’” Few wrote.

McElveen’s attorney, Blake Hewitt of Bluestein Nichols in Columbia, said that his client would continue to appeal the ruling and seek a new trial.

McAlhaney’s attorney, Robert Mathison of Mathison & Mathison in Hilton Head Island, did not reply to a message seeking comment.

The eight-page decision is McAlhaney v. McElveen (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-065-15). The full text of the opinion is available online at

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @SCLWDonovan

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