West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Upholds Circuit Court’s Denial of Request for Judgement as a Matter of Law in Mining Injury Case

1076170_abandoned_mine_2.jpgWork-related injuries are a common occurrence, and such cases can present complex fact patterns and legal issues. Because of these complexities and the ever evolving contours of personal injury law, a West Virginia injury attorney must keep abreast of changes in the field. This is why we here at the Wolfe Law Firm are constantly researching the latest decisions on personal injury cases that are rendered by the courts here in West Virginia. Our attorneys found one such case decided earlier this year, and wanted to share it with our readers.

Stevenson v. Independence Coal Company, Inc. is a case that pits a West Virginia coal miner against the operator of a large underground mine in Boone County for injuries he sustained while on the job. In order for workers to get down to the active area of the mine, they must take a rail-mounted vehicle down underground. Plaintiff Stevenson worked as a beltman on the conveyor belt system used to transport material out of the mine that was located in a remote portion of the facility, and was injured when the rail car he was riding in malfunctioned. Before embarking on his journey towards his work site, Plaintiff performed a pre-operation check of the vehicle, and inspected its hydraulic, emergency/parking, and regenerative brakes to ensure that they were in good working order. This inspection revealed no issues with any of the three braking systems, and he disembarked with three other workers as passengers.

Shortly after leaving, the rail car began rattling noticeably, and all four men could smell heat coming from the vehicle. Plaintiff stopped the car, where an inspection revealed some loose bolts holding a service brake assembly mount, so Plaintiff drove the cart onto an adjoining spur of track (to get it off of the main rail track) where he and one of the passengers tightened the bolts, then continued the journey. The car safely made it to the three passengers’ workstation, where Plaintiff dropped them off and continued into the mine towards his own workstation. However, the rail car malfunctioned again in the same manner as before, so Plaintiff stopped the vehicle on the main track and radioed dispatch requesting that a mechanic or electrician be sent out to assist him in fixing the cart. Dispatch informed Plaintiff it would be “quite a while” before help would arrive, so Plaintiff performed another check of the cart and found that the same bolts as before were loose again. While attempting to tighten the bolts again, Plaintiff’s arm got crushed between the brake assembly and the frame of the cart, causing permanent damage to his arm.

After this injury, Plaintiff sued Defendant Independence Coal under a theory of negligence, claiming that Defendant failed to ensure the cart was maintained in a reasonably safe stated of repair, and that failure caused his injuries. The case proceeded to trial, where a jury found Defendant was 100 percent negligent and awarded Plaintiff almost $2 million in damages. Following trial, Defendant timely moved for a new trial, and renewed prior filed motions requesting judgment as a matter of law. Defendant based these motions on the fact that the causal chain was broken when Plaintiff failed to wait for a mechanic to come help him fix the malfunctioning cart. The circuit court denied Defendant’s motions, holding that the questions of negligence and proximate cause were under the purview of the jury, and that the verdict was supported by testimony that Defendant did not have enough qualified personnel on staff to keep the carts functional. Defendant then appealed the circuit court’s decision.

The Supreme Court of Appeals analyzed the issue of proximate cause in the case, and reviewed the evidence in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs, as required by West Virginia laws. In doing so, the court found that the carts routinely had brake problems, and that due to a shortage of electricians and mechanics on staff, regular mine workers routinely worked on the brake systems. The court also noted that the circuit court correctly held that the proximate cause question involved disputed material facts and should therefore only be answered by the jury. In so holding, the Court denied the motions for judgment as a matter of law, and affirmed the circuit court’s ruling.