The West Virginia Supreme Court was recently criticized widely for its decision that a jury should not decide whether a government entity was liable for its employees’ harmful acts.
The Supreme Court’s decision involved a case where a woman incarcerated at Southern Regional Jail in 2009 was allegedly raped on 17 different occasions by a correctional officer. The correctional officer denied her allegations and filed a complaint against her, claiming she had “improperly propositioned him,” asking if he would trade a favor for her favor. The woman was later transferred to Lakin Correctional Center for the rest of her sentence in 2010. She then filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County against both the Regional Jail Authority and the officer. The woman claimed that the Regional Jail Authority should be held liable for negligence in hiring, staffing, and supervising the officer.
The Regional Jail Authority claimed that it should be dismissed from the suit due to the qualified immunity typically given to government entities. The supposed sexual assault actions were not within the scope of the Regional Jail Authority’s duties, its officials argued. However, the Kanawha County Circuit Court judge disagreed and permitted the Regional Jail Authority to remain a part of the lawsuit. Regional Jail Authority officials appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court, which overruled the lower court.
The Supreme Court claimed that the woman failed to indicate how the Regional Jail Authority was negligent in its hiring or training of the officer, and also failed to identify those responsible for the hiring and supervising. The decision was criticized by a variety of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, West Virginia Council of Churches, and the National Organization for women. They noted that this was the first time whether an employee acted within the scope of his employment was a matter of law — or for judges to decide — rather than a matter for the jury.
These organizations recently filed a brief in support of a petition asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision that the Regional Jail Authority should receive immunity. They claimed that it sent a harmful message that entities need not be held liable for the harm inflicted by their agents, employees, or contractors. The lone dissenter on the Supreme Court, Judge Robin Davis, made a similar point, noting that the majority was essentially stating that the Regional Jail Authority had no duty to protect female prisoners from its employees.
The petition and the brief cited additional reasons and case law that were not argued in the case and might not have been considered by the Supreme Court justices. They asked that the Supreme Court vacate the previous opinion, set up arguments, and provide a new decision.
The Wolfe Law Firm has been providing legal services for nearly 25 years. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm provides services in the areas of personal injury, criminal defense, bankruptcy, and mediation. If you are looking for an experienced West Virginia wrongful death attorney, contact us today.