Recently, the West Virginia Supreme Court upheld a circuit court ruling that a young male driver was not responsible for the fatal injuries his girlfriend sustained after leaping from his car.
The incident took place back in 2009, when West Virginia University students Shana Cowley and Timothy Joseph White began arguing via text message. Their argument later escalated in the West Virginia University parking lot, and Cowley reportedly got into White’s car without permission, at one point punching him in the jaw. White drove out of the parking lot and told Cowley that he was taking her back to her parents’ house. Cowley responded by demanding to be released from the vehicle. When White refused to stop, Cowley opened the door and leapt out of the car. She later died from the injuries she sustained.
Cowley’s mother, Leetta Beachum, then sued White in circuit court, claiming that White falsely imprisoned Cowley and was responsible for her death. After the jury ultimately found in favor of White, Beachum filed a motion for a new trial, claiming that not only was the jury verdict contrary to the weight of evidence, but also that the trial judge had committed two errors. The circuit court denied Beachum’s motion and Beachum appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court.
In the appeal, the Supreme Court considered three issues: whether the trial court should have admitted evidence of a video recording of White’s statement to a policy polygraph examiner, whether the judge misstated the law of false imprisonment to the jury, and whether the circuit court erred by failing to grant a new trial.
Regarding the first issue, Beachum argued that White’s statements in the video recording were hearsay. The Supreme Court agreed that the statement was hearsay, but found that it amounted to harmless error — a mistake that does not merit reversing the original decision. There was nothing in the hearsay statement that contradicted other evidence, which was that Cowley originally got into White’s car without permission.
On the next issue, Beachum argued that the circuit court judge should have given law on false imprisonment as stated in the Restatement (Second) of Torts, rather than law as stated in earlier West Virginia Supreme Court decisions. The Restatement (Second) of Torts defines false imprisonment as: an actor intends to confine another person within the boundaries fixed by the actor, his actions directly or indirectly result in such confinement, and the other person is aware of the confinement. However, the Supreme Court dismissed Beachum’s argument, stating that in earlier cases cited, false imprisonment was discussed in great detail. It was described as the “illegal detention of a person without lawful process” and the unlawfulness was based on “totality of the circumstances.” The Supreme Court did not think it was wrong for the jury to consider the totality of the circumstances or that the trial court abused its discretion.
Finally, the Supreme Court determined that the circuit court was not wrong in failing to order a new trial. The circuit court found that White’s admission that Cowley did not want to go home was not an admission of wrong because Cowley only protested once she learned where White was headed. White claimed that he could not safely leave her by the road. To the Supreme Court, the circumstances did not show that the jury verdict went against the weight of evidence.
Clearly losing a child is a horrible thing, and many parents hire West Virginia wrongful death attorneys to avenge the wrong, as Beachum likely did. While first responders stated that Cowley admitted to jumping out of the car, unfortunately, the full circumstances that prompted her will never be known.