West Virginia Supreme Court Affirms Summary Judgment Ruling Against Injured Worker, Citing Lack of Detailed Evidence

62740_industrial_extension_cord.jpgIn a previous post, we discussed the fact that West Virginia is a “notice pleading” state. Notice pleading is the most common form of pleading in the United States. When the injured party hires a West Virginia personal injury attorney and files a claim, notice pleading requires that the initial complaint have just a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” A complaint meeting these requirements is likely to survive any attempts to dismiss the claim. However, once the claim is allowed to proceed, the next test it faces is surviving a summary judgment motion.

A motion for summary judgment is typically filed after both parties have gone through a “discovery” period, whereby each party requests information about the case from the other. When a summary judgment motion is filed, the burden is on the party that files the motion — usually the same party who wanted the case dismissed — to show that no trial is necessary because (1) there are no disputes of material fact and (2) based on the accepted facts, the party that filed the motion deserves to have the judge rule in his or her favor. Since the burden is on the party that files the motion, or the “moving party,” the other party only needs to show that there is substantial evidence of a factual dispute, regardless of how solid the evidence turns out to be.

In a recent case, the West Virginia Supreme Court affirmed a circuit court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of Grafton Truss and Panel Company after an employee could not provide sufficient evidence that the company caused his injury.

Charles Lucien Hall had claimed that the company was liable for injuries he sustained after a “tripping device” had been put in his path at the company’s plant, an extension cord stretched across the aisle. Hall claimed that the cord had been placed there on purpose, resulting in his injury. Hall did not tell anyone about the incident; instead, he just told an unspecified person that he would not be coming to work because his tripping incident caused an injury. Without more evidence that the company intentionally laid out a tripping hazard, the circuit court entered summary judgment against Hall in 2008. Hall then appealed to the state Supreme Court.

However, the Supreme Court found that Hall had a history of failing to report supposed actions taken against him, such as five cases where coworkers allegedly threw drywall at him. Hall could not recall who had thrown the drywall or where the incidents occurred. He was able to identify one culprit, who in 2003 allegedly threw drywall at him, thrust him against a wall, locked him in a closet, and set Hall’s nail pouch on fire while he was wearing it. After Hall reported the nail incident, Hall and the other man got into an off-site altercation, which resulted in the other man’s arrest and his termination from the company.

Because the only person Hall could identify was terminated for his conduct, the West Virginia Supreme Court concluded that Hall’s evidence did not establish that his injury was the result of intentional conduct by his employer. Rather, the Supreme Court concluded that the employer appeared to not know, or have reason to know, of the other employees’ conduct.

This case is a good lesson for anyone considering filing a lawsuit. Often a person might really be coping with illegal or negligent conduct, but then lose a lawsuit because he or she failed to keep a paper trail. If you have experienced harmful behavior, you should keep the best record that you can of what happened so that you can later document the behavior if needed. That way, you have a much greater chance of surviving summary judgment if legal action ensues.