A paper written by then-law student Lee Floyd convinces state supreme court to reject oft-cited case as precedent
Lee Floyd, ’07, never could have imagined that a paper he wrote nearly 10 years ago as a student at the University of South Carolina School of Law would sway the opinions of the justices of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, ultimately affecting legal precedent.
But that’s exactly what happened when the justices heard the case of Stokes-Craven Holding Corp. v. Robinson LLC, which concerned a car dealership whose legal malpractice claim had been ruled by the circuit court to be past the statute of limitations. Lawyers on behalf of Stokes-Craven appealed that judgment to the state Supreme Court and filed a motion that they be allowed to argue that the precedent-setting case, Epstein v. Brown, should no longer be applied.
In Epstein, a doctor who lost a wrongful death claim and subsequent appeal brought a suit against his trial attorney for malpractice. The Supreme Court in that case confirmed lower court rulings that the three-year statute of limitations on filing a legal malpractice claim had run out, saying that it began at the conclusion of the original trial, not at the conclusion of the appeal. This established a legal precedent, and Epstein would be cited in several cases that followed.
Floyd came across the Epstein decision while working as a second-year research assistant for Prof. Robert Felix.
“We were researching the ‘South Carolina Law of Torts,’ which is basically the bible of South Carolina tort law,” Floyd said. “The Epstein case was included, having just come out the previous year, and I found it interesting for several reasons. I decided to write on it for my research paper, and I submitted a shorter version that was accepted for publication in the Law Review.”
In his article, “South Carolina Tort Law: For Whom the Statute of Limitations Tolls — The Epstein Court’s Rejection of the Continuous Representation Rule (57 S.C. Law Review 643, 2006 ),” Floyd outlined what he thought were flaws in the court’s original ruling in Epstein.
“Epstein rejected the continuous representation rule, which allows the statute of limitations period to toll as long as the same lawyer represents the client during the appeals process,” Floyd said. “Many other courts in the country have now adopted the continuous representation rule at least in part because it protects the sanctity of the attorney-client relationship. A client should be able to rely on their attorney’s advice, especially when the attorney suggests filing an appeal of a lawsuit.”
Floyd also maintained that the Epstein decision was flawed because it relied on the statute of repose.
“While the state legislature specifically created a statute of repose for medical malpractice, it set forth a less strict statute of limitations for legal malpractice,” Floyd said. “This indicated that it was unwilling to set the same absolute time limit for legal malpractice actions that it set for medical malpractice actions.”
In its majority opinion in Robinson, which was published in September 2015, the Supreme Court quoted Floyd’s article in its consideration of Epstein’s flaws. Ultimately the court concluded that the statute of limitations for a legal malpractice claim should begin after resolution of appeal of the underlying case, not after the original jury’s verdict, effectively overruling Epstein. This reversed the circuit court’s original verdict in Robinson, and the matter was remanded for further proceedings.
“It’s a pretty important decision if you do civil litigation because few issues come up as often as the statute of limitations on malpractice claims,” said Floyd, who is now an attorney with the Lucey Law Firm in Charleston, S.C. “While this won’t reverse any previous rulings, it will definitely make an impact going forward.
“I thought my paper was good, and I was proud that it won the student writing award that year. But having the state Supreme Court quote it extensively in a ruling really confirmed the quality of the work.”