Limits on SC lawsuits, immigration enforcement are top new laws for new year

COLUMBIA — South Carolina lawsuit awards face new limits and employers will be required to check a federal database to see if the people they hire are in the country legally under laws scheduled to go into effect Monday.


The limits on lawsuit punitive damage awards only affects new cases and may not show up for months in courtrooms. South Carolina will limit punitive damage awards in lawsuits filed after Jan. 1. In a typical case, punitive damages will be limited to $500,000 or three times the actual damages, whichever is greater.

But if the defendant’s conduct would bring a felony conviction or was motivated by unreasonable financial gain, the court could raise the maximum award to $2 million, or four times actual damages that include things like lost wages and hospital bills, if that amount is larger. And there is no cap when the defendant intended to cause harm, was found guilty of a felony related to the damage or was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The South Carolina Civil Justice Coalition had pushed the legislation and said it would help make the state more attractive to businesses.

“It will add to the stability of anticipated costs for companies,” said Joe Jones, the coalition’s administrator. “How do you put a value on that?”

Otis Rawl, chief executive officer of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, said the limits are needed. “It protects businesses from frivolous lawsuits,” Rawl said. “And it give the state another tool in its toolbox.”

South Carolina’s illegal immigration law is modeled after Arizona’s and would be one of the nation’s toughest. It requires that police check immigration status at traffic stops and other places. The stops must not be made based on the suspicion that someone is in the U.S. illegally. Meanwhile, the law sets up a new illegal immigration law enforcement unit in the state Department of Public Safety.

The law requires employers to check a federal database to see if the people they hire are in the country legally. It makes it a crime to employ illegal immigrants. And it makes it a crime to harbor an illegal immigrant or to make or hold fake identification. Illegal immigrants would face felony charges by allowing themselves to be transported inside the state.

The law is facing legal challenges. The Justice Department, American Civil Liberties Union and several Latin American and Caribbean nations say it is unconstitutional and will promote discrimination.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel has put parts of the law on hold: harboring illegal immigrants, immigration status checks and a requirement that people carry immigrant registration documents.

Gergel also turned down a request by state Deputy Attorney General Emory Smith to let all of the law take effect while the U.S. Supreme Court decides the fate of Arizona’s law.

He is letting other portions of the law go into effect on Monday. That includes a requirement that businesses check new hires’ legal status through a federal online system. Businesses that knowingly violate the law could have their operating licenses revoked

Rawl said the immigration law presents a mixed bag of concerns, including some that agricultural crops won’t be harvested.

But at the same time, there are plenty of businesses that felt an ample supply of illegal immigrants made it easy for unscrupulous businesses to compete unfairly because they didn’t follow wage laws or requirements to buy workers’ compensation insurance. “What we need to do is create jobs for our citizens and the people who are here legally,” Rawl said.

Other new laws affect drivers. People wanting to register cars or get titles for their vehicles will have to show identification.

Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican, co-sponsored the bill. He said it will help people who live out of state and have second homes here get South Carolina titles for vehicles that they leave at those second homes. That lets them buy South Carolina insurance policies on those vehicles.

The state also is changing the rules for insurance discounts people get after passing driver training courses that previously were only available to people 55 and older.

People 25 or older can now enroll in AARP driver safety classes that last six hours instead of eight. Insurance companies are required to give discounts for drivers who successfully complete the class. The law says people can take four-hour classes every four years to renew the credit.