Coerced Signature on a Release of Insurance Claim

In Hopkins v. Fidelity Ins. Co., 240 S.C. 230, 125 S.E.2d 468 (1962) the mother of a two year old girl, fatally crushed under a farm vehicle, filed suit alleging fraud and deceit by Fidelity Insurance Company in its settlement of the wrongful death claim. The complaint alleged a Fidelity agent took advantage of the mother's state of shock and coerced her into signing a release of her claim in exchange for two thousand dollars. The Supreme Court in Hopkins found the mother's action should have been dismissed. The court held the action vested in the child's personal representative rather than in the mother, and the claim failed as it was brought by the mother in her individual capacity. In further remarks, the Court stated the complaint failed to allege the child's death resulted from negligent operation of the farm vehicle. The court reasoned the mere allegation that the child was fatally injured by the truck did not warrant an inference of negligence. The court next concluded that even if the complaint alleged the underlying negligence, the complaint failed because the mother alleged the release was fraudulently obtained. The court concluded the mother alleged no damages because a fraudulently obtained release would be void and would thus not bar the mother's cause of action. Although Hopkins has been interpreted as standing for the proposition that South Carolina does not allow tort actions against insurers for acts of their adjusters in fraudulently procuring releases, our Supreme Court has not recognized this view and has applied Hopkins as a rule of pleading. Compare Gary D. Spivey, Annotation, Insurer's Tort Liability for Acts of Adjuster Seeking to Obtain Settlement or Release, 39 A.L.R.3d 739, 754 n.4 (1971) ("The present availability of the action for fraud and deceit [in South Carolina] is in doubt in view of the decision in Hopkins. . . .") with Pilkington v. McBain, 274 S.C. 312, 314-15, 262 S.E.2d 916, 917-18 (1980) (The Court concluded that "strict reliance on Hopkins" was misplaced. Utilizing the rule that pleadings are to liberally construed, the Court found the plaintiff in Pilkington alleged damages, unlike in Hopkins in which the Court held the plaintiff failed to allege damages). See also Mutual Sav. and Loan Ass'n v. McKenzie, 274 S.C. 630, 266 S.E.2d 423 (1980) (citing Hopkins in concluding plaintiff failed to plead damages). Accordingly, we review the law interpreting the sufficiency of pleadings. The Hopkins case was decided in 1962 under the requirements of Code Pleading. The South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure were adopted effective July 1, 1985. Rule 86, SCRCP. The rule governing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action, Rule 12(b)(6), SCRCP, replaces the Code Pleading rules regarding demurrers. See 1985 S.C. Acts 100. Rule 12(b)(6), SCRCP, "retains the Code Pleading standard... rather than the more lenient notice pleading standard found in the federal rules." Harry M. Lightsey, Jr. & James F. Flanagan, South Carolina Civil Procedure 93 (2nd ed. 1996). See also Justice v. the Pantry, 335 S.C. 572, 518 S.E.2d 40 (1999) (citing South Carolina Civil Procedure). However, "technical, restrictive or outmoded requirements of Code Pleading are not necessarily required." Lightsey, Jr. & Flanagan at 93-94. Furthermore, Rule 8(f), SCRCP, states that all pleadings are to be construed to do substantial justice to all parties.