The S.C. Court of Appeals has upheld a jury's six-figure award to a truck driver who was hurt in a 2012 accident at the Port of Charleston.
Curtis Mills won a $616,710 verdict against the State Ports Authority following a 2018 trial in Charleston County. The award was later reduced to $300,000 — the maximum allowed against government agencies in South Carolina.
The appeals court affirmed the jury's award in a Sept. 15 order that also denied the SPA's request for a new trial. The three-judge panel said the maritime agency failed in the original trial to raise an issue over whether Mills shared some of the blame for the accident. That means the judges could not consider that argument as part of the SPA's appeal.
The judges also ruled the jury's verdict was not excessive and the original court was correct when it denied the ports authority's request for a new trial.
A spokeswoman for the SPA could not immediately be reached for comment.
Ladson Howell, the lawyer who represented Mills, has been critical of the SPA in the past. When the trucker's lawsuit was filed in 2014, he said "there is a pattern for negligent operators or trainers or supervisors or a combination of all three" at the port.
Following the appeals court decision, Howell said he is "cautiously optimistic that the court system will help make the port a safer place for its workers."
Court records show Mills was injured when a SPA employee at the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant was using equipment designed to move cargo containers off a chassis attached to the back of truck.
The employee picked up a container that was still hitched to the chassis of Mills’ truck, according to court documents. The lawsuit alleged the employee lifted the vehicle, container and chassis between 6 and 8 feet off the ground then started shaking the container until it broke loose, causing the truck and chassis to fall to the ground.
One of the SPA's lawyers said during the initial trial that evidence showed some of the locking pins on Mills’ chassis were still engaged when the container was being lifted. Truck drivers are supposed to make sure all of the pins are disengaged. Mills testified that he disengaged the pins after entering the terminal.
However, the pins can sometimes jostle back into the engaged position as a driver makes his or her way through the terminal, and a witness testified during the initial trial that the safest procedure is to double-check that the pins are disengaged right before the container is to be removed.