The Department of Motor Vehicles appeals from an order of the
South Carolina Division of Motor Vehicle Hearings (DMVH), claiming that the
DMVH erroneously rescinded the suspension of Juan Castro’s vehicle registration
privileges. The DMVH issued its order after conducting a hearing pursuant to
S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-363 (Supp. 2007). The Administrative Law Court (ALC) has
jurisdiction to hear this matter pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. §§ 56-9-363 & 1-23-660
(Supp. 2007). Because the DMVH’s order is based on an error of law, it must be
July 17, 2007, Castro’s vehicle was involved in an accident while another
person was attempting to park it at a convenience store. On September 18, 2007,
the Department sent Castro written notice that, as a result of the accident, his
vehicle registration privilege would be suspended, effective October 18, 2007, pursuant
to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-351 (2006).
The notice informed Castro that he could clear the suspension by (1) providing written
verification that his vehicle was insured at the time of the accident; or (2) using
one of the alternative compliance options listed on the back of the notice. On
October 17, 2007, Castro requested a hearing to challenge the suspension
pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-363 (Supp. 2007). The DMVH conducted a hearing
on November 15, 2007. On January 23, 2008, the DMVH hearing officer issued an
order rescinding Castro’s suspension based on her conclusion that no reasonable
possibility existed that a civil court might enter judgment against Castro “for
being the sole contributing party” to the accident because both vehicle
operators contributed to the accident. The Department appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
DMVH is authorized by law to determine contested cases arising from the
Department. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2007). Therefore, the
DMVH is an “agency” under the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”). See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-310(2) (2005). As such, the APA’s standard of review
governs appeals from decisions of the DMVH. See S.C. Code Ann. §
1-23-380 (Supp. 2007); see also Byerly Hosp. v. S.C. State Health & Human Servs. Fin. Comm’n, 319 S.C. 225, 229, 460 S.E.2d 383, 385 (1995).
The standard used by appellate bodies, including the ALC, to review agency
decisions is provided by S.C. Code Ann. §1-23-380(A)(5) (Supp. 2007).
The court may not
substitute its judgment for the judgment of the agency as to the weight of the
evidence on questions of fact. The court may affirm the decision of the agency
or remand the case for further proceedings. The court may reverse or modify
the decision if substantial rights of the appellant have been prejudiced
because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions, or decisions are:
violation of constitutional or statutory provisions;
excess of the statutory authority of the agency;
upon unlawful procedure;
by other error of law;
erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the
whole record; or
or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted
exercise of discretion.
S.C. Code Ann. §
1-23-380(A)(5) (Supp. 2007). Pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(B) (Supp. 2007), administrative law judges must conduct appellate review in the same manner
prescribed in section 1-23-380(A).
hearing officer’s rescission of Castro’s suspension was based on her
interpretation of S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-363 (Supp. 2007), which provides as
Any person whose driving privilege becomes subject to suspension
or is suspended under the provisions of this article may request an
administrative hearing with the Division of Motor Vehicle Hearings prior to the
suspension or within thirty days after written notice of the suspension in
order that he might prove that no reasonable possibility exists that a civil
court might enter a judgment against him as a result of the accident in
S.C. Code Ann. §
56-9-363 (Supp. 2007).
hearing officer concluded that no reasonable possibility existed that a civil
court might enter a judgment against Castro “for being the sole contributing
party” to the accident because both vehicle operators contributed to the
accident. However, nothing in the language of section 56-9-363 specifies that
the potential judgment must be based on a finding that the person who sought
the DMVH hearing was solely responsible for the accident. If the person who
sought the hearing becomes a defendant in a negligence action and a jury determines
that he was at least fifty percent at fault, there is a reasonable possibility
that judgment, in an amount corresponding to his contribution to the accident, might
be entered against him. See Nelson v. Concrete Supply Co., 303
S.C. 243, 399 S.E.2d 783 (1991) (comparative negligence doctrine).
the hearing officer misconstrued section 56-9-363 by expanding its operation,
her rescission of Castro’s suspension was based on an error of law. See Floyd v.
Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 367 S.C. 253, 260, 626 S.E.2d 6, 10 (2005) (cardinal
rule of statutory interpretation is
to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature); Cooper v. Moore, 351 S.C. 207, 212, 569 S.E.2d 330,
332 (2002) (where the terms of the statute are clear, the court must
apply those terms according to their literal meaning, without resort to subtle
or forced construction to limit or expand the statute’s operation). Therefore,
the DMVH rescission of the Department’s suspension must be reversed. See S.C. Code Ann. §1-23-380(A)(5)(d) (Supp. 2007) (ALC may reverse
or modify agency decision if substantial rights of appellant have been
prejudiced because administrative conclusions are affected by error of law).
IS HEREBY ORDERED that the DMVH’s Final Order and Decision is REVERSED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
June 20, 2008 JOHN
Columbia, South Carolina Administrative
1205 Pendleton Street, Suite 224
Columbia, South Carolina 29201-3731
sixty days of receipt of a report of a motor vehicle accident within this State
which has resulted in bodily injury or death or damage to the property of any
one person in the amount of two hundred dollars or more, the Department of
Motor Vehicles shall suspend the license of each operator or driver if he is
the owner of the motor vehicle involved in the accident and all registrations
of each owner of a motor vehicle involved in the accident.
Code Ann. § 56-9-351 (2006). Pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-9-352 (2006), section
56-9-351 does not apply in several different situations, including where the
vehicle in question was insured at the time of the accident.