A woman who was falsely accused of selling stolen scrap metal will be able to pursue a malicious prosecution lawsuit against the victim of the crime, but not against a witness who merely cooperated with a police investigation, the South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled.

Chief Justice Donald Beatty, writing for a unanimous court in a March 27 opinion, said that witnesses have no duty to investigate before cooperating with criminal investigators, but that the South Carolina Victims’ Bill of Rights doesn’t shield purported victims from liability for claims of wrongful arrest or malicious prosecution.

Meredith Huffman was wrongfully arrested and charged with selling scrap metal to Sunshine Recycling that had been stolen from Aiken Electric Cooperative. She was later absolved when investigators received video evidence and a confession from another man who admitted to the crime.

Huffman sued the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Department and the two companies, alleging negligence, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. The sheriff’s office settled, and a trial court judge granted summary judgment in favor of the two companies. After the South Carolina Court of Appeals reversed, the companies appeal to the state’s Supreme Court.

Sunshine argued that the Court of Appeals had erred in creating a duty for witnesses to perform their own investigations before assisting law enforcement with a criminal investigation. The court agreed, finding that the appeals court’s decision went too far and would have risked chilling public cooperation with law enforcement investigations.

“There is a distinct difference between an individual who, in good faith, reports mistaken or inaccurate information and an individual who purposely provides law enforcement with knowingly false information,” Beatty wrote. “However, we find punishing an individual who mistakenly identifies a criminal suspect or unwittingly provides what is later discovered to be incorrect information in a criminal investigation serves no purpose.”

Beatty said that the Court of Appeals misinterpreted the record and misapplied the summary judgment standard in reversing the grant of summary judgement in Sunshine’s favor since there was nothing in the record to suggest Sunshine or its employees “induced, caused, instigated, or procured Huffman’s arrest simply by cooperating with law enforcement and relaying information Sunshine believed to be true at the time.”

The court agreed, however, that Huffman should be able to continue with her claims against Aiken. The company had argued that her claims should be barred because the South Carolina Victims’ Bill of Rights and state law protects victims of crimes from civil liability for claims of wrongful arrest or malicious prosecution, but the court disagreed.

“[This] court has never interpreted the Victims’ Bill of Rights as providing a defense to victims accused of false imprisonment or malicious prosecution,” Beatty wrote, “and Aiken has failed to cite any case law in support of its contention.”

Regarding the claims that South Carolina Code 16-3-1505 offers similar protections, Beatty said that the law exists to ensure victims are informed of their rights and that there is no indication the General Assembly intended it to extend outside of the context of an ongoing criminal proceeding.

Aiken had also argued that the Court of Appeals relied on inadmissible testimony to reach its decision reversing the summary judgment, but Beatty wrote that because the testimony was based on the officers’ perceptions of their interactions with an Aiken employee who requested Huffman’s arrest and asked that officers speed up the investigation, it could be offered as lay testimony and did not need to be qualified as expert testimony.

Breon Walker and Jessica Waller of Gallivan, White & Boyd in Columbia represented Sunshine Recycling on appeal.

Walker said that the Supreme Court righted an important error made by the Court of Appeals.

“Had they won this, it would’ve put the duty on witnesses to investigate,” she said. “That has never been the case, and it would have created a chilling effect on witnesses to prevent them from cooperating. People would be afraid to speak up because if you’re wrong, you could be held civilly liable.”

Robert Goings and Jessica Gooding of Going Law Firm in Columbia and J. Todd Rutherford of Columbia represented Huffman on appeal.

Goings said that he is excited that his client will finally get her day in court after nine years of litigation following her wrongful arrest.

“The Supreme Court correctly held that the Victims’ Bill of Rights and 16-3-1505 do not provide a defense or immunity to victims accused of false imprisonment or malicious prosecution,” Goings said, while also noting his agreement that the public should not be inhibited from cooperating with police. “But victims should not be free to lie to the police or withhold evidence in order to secure an arrest.”

Pope Johnson III of Columbia represented Aiken Electric Cooperative on appeal. Johnson could not be reached for comment before press time due to an illness.

The 15-page decision is Huffman v. Sunshine Recycling, LLC and Aiken Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-018-19). The full text of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.

Follow Matt Chaney on Twitter @SCLWChaney

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