A South Carolina appellate court in January 2020 affirmed the award of actual and punitive damages to an Anderson County woman who underwent medical treatment and endured vivid nightmares after her hand was punctured by a needle from a dirty syringe in a Target store parking lot.
Carla D. Garrison, the mother, in May 2014 swatted the syringe from the hand of her 8-year-old daughter, who had picked it up, and the needle punctured the mother’s palm. Mrs. Garrison reported the injury to Target. She subsequently underwent blood tests for a year with an infectious disease specialist and took medications to prevent an HIV/AIDS infection. The medication made her dizzy and ill, caused her to become bedridden and have vivid night terrors. Her husband, Clint Garrison, missed time from work to care for her and the family suffered financially.
The Garrisons offered to settle their case for $12,000, but Target refused and offered only $750. Target claimed the parking lot was regularly cleaned and swept weekly by a cleaning truck. However, Mr. Garrison testified he spent an entire night watching the lot on a Thursday, the night the cleaning truck allegedly was supposed to come, but no truck ever swept the lot.
A jury in Anderson County awarded the Garrisons $100,000 in actual damages and $4.5 million in punitive damages. The verdict is believed to be one of the largest ever in Anderson County. Target appealed the case to the South Carolina Court of Appeals.
The South Carolina Court of Appeals upheld the award of actual damages. A plaintiff in a premises liability case must show that the defendant had actual or construction knowledge of the dangerous condition and failed to remedy it. Evidence at trial revealed the syringe was “dingy, dirty and gross” and “bore a weathered look,” indicating it had been lying in the lot for a significant time. The jury properly could conclude that Target was on notice of the dangerous condition.
The Court of Appeals upheld the award of punitive damages because there was sufficient evidence of Target’s recklessness, willfulness, or wantonness to support the award. However, the Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court for a determination on whether the amount of punitive damages awarded was excessive or a violation of due process.
The Court of Appeals further held that Target had waived its right to assert a statute which, in some circumstances, limits an award of punitive damages. Target was required to assert the statutory cap on damages as an affirmative defense in its written answer to the lawsuit or before the conclusion of the discovery process, but failed to do so. Consequently, the Garrisons were deprived of the chance to gather and present evidence which would be relevant to factual findings which the trial court must make pursuant to the statutory cap.
The Court of Appeals also held that the Garrisons were entitled to pre-judgment interest on the award of actual damages, but not on the award of punitive damages.
The Court of Appeals issued Carla Denise Garrison v. Target Corporation, Op. No. 5711, on January 15, 2020.