West Virginia Court Limits When Trust Can Be Held Liable For Wrongful Death

motorcycleMost personal injury claims are brought against individuals who caused harm or damages to another person. However, individuals are not the only defendants who may be held responsible when serious injuries or death occur. Sometimes corporations can be held accountable when their employees are acting within the scope of employment, or when other individuals are performing as agents of the corporation. A recent case before the West Virginia Court of Appeals looks at the unique question of whether a trust can also be sued for personal injury or wrongful death if its trustee commits a tort that leads to an injury.

In this court of appeals case out of Ritchie County, H.M. was killed after his motorcycle struck a truck driven by R.J. R.J. was attempting to turn left in an intersection when he failed to yield to H.M.’s right of way, and H.M. was injured. The administrator of H.M.’s estate, P.B., originally brought claims solely against R.J. for the medical expenses and emotional damages that resulted from H.M.’s death. During the case, however, P.B. learned that R.J. was also the trustee of a large trust that held property and other interests for R.J.’s sister and two children. P.B. moved to add the trust as an additional defendant in the lawsuit. P.B. argued that at the time R.J. was driving his truck, he had purchased pipe and was headed to fix real estate owned by the trust, and therefore he was acting as an agent of the trust at the time of the accident. R.J. filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the claim against the trust was inappropriate because R.J. was not acting at the instruction of the beneficiaries of the trust, nor was he under their control, at the time of the accident. The court denied R.J.’s motion for summary judgment. Although R.J. renewed his motion before trial and afterward, he was denied. The jury ultimately determined that R.J. was acting as an agent of the trust when the accident occurred. R.J. appealed.

On appeal, R.J. argued that the trust should not be held liable for his accident. The Court of Appeals looked at both the common law and West Virginia statutes on the issue. It noted that, traditionally, under common law, a trust ordinarily was not liable for the torts of its trustees unless the trustee was under the control of the beneficiaries of the trust at the time of the tort. However, in 2011, the West Virginia Legislature enacted a new trust code, which provided that a trust may be liable for a tort committed by a trustee if the tort was committed during the course of administering the trust. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals determined that this was the governing rule in West Virginia, which superseded the prior common law rule.

Here, the Court of Appeals noted that the question was whether R.J. was in the course of administering the trust when the accident occurred. Administering a trust has been held to include collecting trust property, managing that property, paying taxes, handling contracts, and addressing other similar financial matters. Moreover, prior case law has found that claims against a trust for a tort committed in the administration of the trust generally arise from purchasing property from the trust, selling property, or engaging in transactions with the trust. None of that was occurring when R.J. was driving his truck. Instead, he was simply purchasing pipe to use at a residence owned by the trust. But the trust had not instructed him to do this or required it as part of his trustee duties. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals determined that the lower court was wrong to deny R.J.’s post-trial motion that the trust was not a proper defendant and reversed. It further instructed the lower court to enter an order finding that the trust is not liable for the tort and should be dismissed from the case.

This case makes clear that the circumstances in which a trust can be added as a defendant to a wrongful death or negligence case are extremely limited. The trustee or individual who caused the injuries must be actively engaged in the administration of the trust at the time the injury or death occurs. At the Wolfe Law Firm, our West Virginia wrongful death lawyers understand the complexities of suing a trustee or trust and can help you evaluate whether a trustee’s actions at the time of your injury were so intertwined with the trust that they allow a claim against the trust itself. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the Wolfe Law Firm represents clients in a wide range of injury, criminal defense, and bankruptcy matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

Related blog posts:

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Vacating Judgments in West Virginia Personal Injury Cases – Phillips v. Stear

Forum Non Conveniens in West Virginia – What Factors Should Be Considered When Determining Where to Bring a Lawsuit?