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Public Utilities – Water – Fire Sprinkler System – No Dedicated Line – Appeals – First Impression

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//July 28, 2020

Public Utilities – Water – Fire Sprinkler System – No Dedicated Line – Appeals – First Impression

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//July 28, 2020

S.C. Code Ann. § 58-5-390 limits the fee a utility may charge for the installation and maintenance of a fire sprinkler system. The plain language of § 58-5-390 as a whole reflects the legislature’s intent to isolate the costs “associated with” a line to a fire sprinkler system to a separate line dedicated to only that system. The use of mandatory language rules out the possibility that the legislature simply left unaddressed the question of how costs could be calculated on dual-purpose lines to existing fire sprinkler systems, which would have created a latent ambiguity in the statute. The appellant-Customer was not entitled to a refund of fees he paid for dual-purpose lines to his existing fire sprinkler system.

We deny respondent-Utility’s motion to dismiss this appeal. We affirm the circuit court’s order granting summary judgment to Utility.

Even if the statute may be reasonably interpreted in more than one way so as to render it ambiguous, applying the rules of statutory construction to § 58-5-390 underscores the reality that it is not feasible to determine all of the “actual” costs associated with a line to a fire sprinkler system if the line is also used for other purposes. The only way to stay true to the requirement to charge only the actual costs is to isolate those costs through the separation of the line to the fire sprinkler system from any water line serving other building systems. If the legislature had deemed it sufficient for a utility to extrapolate the costs of a water line to a fire sprinkler system from the costs of a dual-purpose line, it would not have included the word “actual” in subsections (A) and (B) or the word “separate” in subsection (B).

Customer relies on the language stating the statute’s purpose, i.e., “It is the purpose of this act to create meaningful incentives for the installation of fire sprinkler systems,” to support his argument that the legislature intended for the statute to apply to all fire sprinkler systems. However, the statute’s purpose contemplates the installation of new fire sprinkler systems into buildings that did not already have them on the statute’s effective date and provides fair notice to utilities that they must document actual costs only by installing a separate line dedicated exclusively to a fire sprinkler system.

The owners of buildings with fire sprinkler systems already in place when § 58-5-390 was enacted did not need the incentive created by the statute. Therefore, the statute’s incentive-creating purpose was not fulfilled by existing fire sprinkler systems. Hence, we see no incongruity in excluding from the class of the statute’s beneficiaries those owners of fire sprinkler systems that were already existing on the statute’s effective date and were served by a dual-purpose line.

We affirm the circuit court’s conclusion that § 58-5-390 applies to only those lines dedicated exclusively to a fire sprinkler system.

During the period for which Customer seeks a refund, his building did not have a separate line dedicated to the fire sprinkler system.

Motion to Dismiss

Utility moves to dismiss Customer’s appeal, arguing that Customer’s Rule 59(e), SCRCP, motion did not stay the time for serving the notice of appeal because the motion was not served until after the 10-day deadline. Utility bases its argument on the premise that the time-stamp on the circuit court’s e-mail providing the parties notice of the entry of its summary judgment order was the starting point for calculating the 10-day deadline.

The question of whether the e-mail’s time-stamp can be presumed to be the date of a party’s receipt of the notice has not yet been addressed by our appellate courts. In the absence of our Supreme Court’s pronouncement of such a presumption, this court must look to the record on appeal to determine the date of receipt of the circuit court’s e-mail notice according to the standards of S.C. Code Ann. § 26-6-150(B).

Because Utility failed to present to the circuit court its argument that Customer’s Rule 59(e) motion was late, the parties did not create a record establishing either the date that the circuit court’s e-mail notice entered counsel’s e-mail server or whether the e-mail notice was “in a form capable of being processed by” counsel’s server. Therefore, we reject Utility’s argument that Customer did not timely invoke this court’s appellate jurisdiction.

Motion denied; order affirmed.

Lemmons v. Macedonia Water Works, Inc. (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-043-20, 15 pp.) (John Geathers, J.) Appealed from the Circuit Court in Cherokee County (R. Keith Kelly, J.) Christopher David Kennedy, N. Douglas Brannon and J. Falkner Wilkes for appellant; Joseph Mathis, Joseph Johnson and Lawrence Emile Flynn for respondent. S.C. App.

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