Epstein case is overruled
A car dealership case against a law firm provided the South Carolina Supreme Court the opportunity to reverse its prior ruling on the point in time the three-year statute of limitations begins to run in a legal malpractice case. Interestingly, retired Chief Justice Toal’s dissent in the earlier case was adopted. The new bright-line rule in South Carolina is that the statute of limitations does not begin to run in a legal malpractice case that is appealed until the appellate court disposes of the action by sending a remittitur to the trial court.
The current case, Stokes-Craven Holding Corp. v. Robinson*, involved a negligence suit against a law firm that was dismissed at summary judgment based on the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations. The automobile dealership had been sued by a consumer who discovered the vehicle he purchased had sustained extensive undisclosed damage prior to his purchase. After an adverse jury verdict which was affirmed on appeal, the dealership sued its lawyer, arguing that the lawyer, among other matters, failed to adequately investigate the facts in the case, failed to conduct adequate discovery, and failed to settle the case despite the admission by the dealership that it had “done something wrong”.
The lower court, following precedent, found that the dealership knew or should have known it had a legal malpractice claim against its trial counsel on the date of the adverse jury verdict. A 2005 South Carolina Supreme Court case, Epstein v. Brown **, had held just that, despite the fact that the claimant in the earlier case, like the current case, had filed an appeal.
Epstein represented a minority position in the country, according to the current case. A majority of states have adopted the “continuous-representation rule”, which permits the statute of limitations to be tolled during the period an attorney continues to represent the client on the matter out of which the alleged legal malpractice arose. In Stokes-Craven, our Court continued to reject the continuous-representation rule, finding that rule to be problematic because its application may be unclear under some factual scenarios. Our Court looked to existing appellate court rules to the effect that an appeal acts as an automatic stay as to the judgment in the lower court. In other words, if the claimant appeals the matter in which the alleged malpractice occurred, any basis for the legal malpractice cause of action is stayed while the appeal is pending.
The Court stated that its new bright-line rule is consistent with the discovery rule which states that an action must be commenced within three years of the time a person knew or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known that he or she had a cause of action. A client either knows or should know that a cause of action arises out of the attorney’s alleged malpractice if an appeal is unsuccessful.
Chief Justice Pleicones dissented, stating he would adhere to the discovery rule adopted in Epstein and reverse the trial court’s order granting summary judgment because there are unresolved genuine issues of material fact making that relief inappropriate.
* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27572 (May 24, 2016)
** 363 S.C. 381, 610 S.E.2d 816 (2005)