Typically, when dealing with personal injury claims, a plaintiff must show that the defendant negligently caused the injuries or harm that resulted, and it was not the plaintiff’s own negligence that was the primary cause of the accident. However, in certain cases, courts may allow plaintiffs to bring claims even if they were significantly responsible for their own injury because it would be unjust or inhumane to allow otherwise. One of these circumstances is when the last clear chance doctrine applies.
As has been discussed previously on this blog, bringing claims against governmental entities, whether state or federal, can be very complicated. Governmental officials are entitled to qualified immunity for their actions in many circumstances, particularly when those actions are discretionary. A recent case decided by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia illustrates this qualified immunity exception.
In West Virginia, as in other states in the United States, individuals may have their right to obtain a driver’s license withheld when medical evidence suggests that it would be dangerous for them to drive. This most often occurs when drivers have vision problems, but it can also result from mental health issues or conditions like epilepsy. When the withholding of a driver’s license is based on a temporary or reversible medical condition, West Virginia residents may request to have their driver’s license reinstated. A recent case before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals looks at whether the West Virginia DMV has any liability when a driver has her license reinstated, only to lead to accidents and injuries based on the medical conditions that initially led her license to be revoked.
In West Virginia Department of Transportation v. King, Ms. King was killed after an accident involving another driver, Ms. Peyton. Ms. Peyton had had her license revoked in 2007 due to a seizure disorder. However, in 2009, the DMV reinstated Ms. Peyton’s driving privileges and allowed her to obtain a license. Representatives of Ms. King’s estate filed a negligence action against Ms. Peyton and later amended the action to include the DMV. The representatives argued that the DMV was negligent in allowing Ms. Peyton’s reinstatement to be approved without first sending her medical information to the Driver’s License Advisory Board (DLAB). The DMV responded by filing a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it was entitled to qualified immunity as a state agency. Under West Virginia law, state agencies are entitled to qualified immunity for discretionary actions but not for non-discretionary ones. The trial court found that the DMV was required to submit Ms. Peyton’s medical records to the DLAB, so the actions were non-discretionary. It denied the motion for summary judgment, and the DMV appealed.
In many personal injury claims, a plaintiff is quickly aware of the injury that has occurred and the defendant who is at fault. For instance, in a car accident, the plaintiff knows if she or he has been hurt, and if the driver is to blame. In some contexts, however, personal injury claims can arise more slowly and may not be obvious to the plaintiff for years to come. One frequently cited example is asbestos exposure, in which a plaintiff may be unwittingly exposed to asbestos over a long period and only slowly become sick or realize the cause of the sickness. To address these types of “exposure” claims, courts often give plaintiffs a longer period of time to discover their injury and the cause. At the same time, courts typically try to avoid allowing plaintiffs to bring very old or outdated claims. A recent case before the Fourth Circuit considers whether a plaintiff can bring a claim based on a “hazardous improvement” on the land where he worked, when the improvement occurred over 20 years ago.
On January 9, 2014, Freedom Industries caused one of the largest chemical spills in West Virginia history. For reasons unknown at the time, over 10,000 gallons of chemical waste were emptied into the Elk River, which served as a water source for Charleston, West Virginia. For a period of roughly 12 days, residents and businesses in Charleston were unable to use their tap water and were forced to buy clean water from the store. Those who came in contact with the water reported rashes, sickness, and nausea. Freedom Industries later confirmed that two chemicals, a form of methanol known as MCHM and a form of phenyl ether known as PPH, were involved in the spill. Shortly after the spill was reported, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection began an investigation into what had caused it. They determined that the chemicals that had been released were coal cleaning agents that were produced by another company, Eastman Chemical. Shortly after reports of the spill were released, Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy.
While the investigation into the accident was ongoing, a class action lawsuit was initiated against Eastman Chemical. Included in the class were Charleston residents who had been affected by the spill because their water was interrupted, they lost wages while their businesses were closed, or they suffered ill effects from the spill. The plaintiffs alleged that Eastman Chemical was negligent because it failed to properly test the chemicals that it was manufacturing to ensure their safety, and it did not warn purchasers of the coal cleaning chemicals, like Freedom Industries, of the health dangers of the chemicals or how they should be properly stored. In response, Eastman Chemicals stated that it had followed all relevant guidelines for testing its chemicals, had properly informed Freedom Industries regarding its chemicals, and was not negligent, or responsible, for the spill into the Elk River.
In many instances, when a plaintiff first files a lawsuit for an injury that he or she has experienced, it may not be clear who the defendant is. For instance, maybe the plaintiff tripped on a hole left in a sidewalk but isn’t sure who created the hole. Or an individual may be hit in an accident involving a delivery truck, and, while it is clear what the company that owns the truck is, it is not clear who the driver of the truck was. In these instances, courts will allow plaintiffs to initially plead a case against a “John Doe.” It is presumed that once discovery begins, and the plaintiff is able to conduct depositions and request documents, the identity of John Doe will become apparent, and the pleadings can be amended to reflect the correct individual. In most circumstances, this is what happens. However, on the rare occasions that John Doe cannot be identified, what happens to the plaintiff’s complaint? A recent case out of the Northern District of West Virginia addresses this question.
Legal challenges continue to plague DuPont Chemical in their quest to defend themselves against allegations that they have polluted rivers in Ohio and West Virginia through the release of Teflon chemicals into these waterways. C-8, a chemical substance used to make Teflon cookware non-sticky, was found to be toxic to humans as early as 1961, when studies began to report that C-8 could cause birth defects in unborn children. A continued study of C-8 revealed that it was also responsible for causing various cancers in humans. DuPont continued to use the substance for almost half a century after these studies, failing to disclose to regulators the possible effects of C-8. In addition, the company allowed C-8 to be dumped from its plants into water sources throughout Ohio and West Virginia, ultimately leading to over 3,500 health-related lawsuits. After years of discovery and ongoing litigation, several of these cases have made their way to juries and verdicts.
When an individual sues for injuries and damages resulting from another party’s negligence, he or she is only entitled to receive compensation for harms actually and proximately caused by the other party’s actions. In some negligence cases, this may be very straightforward. For instance, if a doctor performs the wrong surgery, it is usually clear which harms resulted from this error. However, in other instances, an individual may have preexisting injuries or conditions that existed well before the accident, in addition to new injuries resulting from the accident. It can be difficult to separate the two. In a recent case before the Supreme Court of West Virginia, the court took a look at a case involving preexisting injuries and new conditions.
In Harnish v. Corra, Mr. Corra was injured in an accident with Mr. Harnish. Mr. Corra claimed neck and back injuries, as well as a knee injury for which he later needed surgery. Mr. Harnish admitted liability for the accident and for the neck and back injuries, but he denied that the accident had caused the knee injury. Instead, according to Mr. Harnish, Mr. Corra’s knee pain and surgery were the result of preexisting knee conditions. At trial, Mr. Corra presented evidence from a medical expert that while Mr. Corra had chondromalacia, a knee condition, prior to the accident, he had never before had pain, so the pain he experienced and the surgery he required resulted from the accident.
Conversely, Mr. Harnish presented evidence from a medical expert that Mr. Corra’s knee pain was the result of preexisting conditions and normal wear and tear, rather than the accident. However, he acknowledged that these preexisting conditions were aggravated by the accident.
When an individual or loved one is injured or killed as a result of another’s error or failure, it can be difficult not to want to place blame on the person or entity that is believed to have caused the harm. It is only human nature that we would want to hold another accountable for the harm that we have suffered and to seek retribution or revenge for the loss that was experienced. When dealing with claims of negligence, however, it is not enough that the accident or shortcomings of another party led to an injury. The law requires that a plaintiff also show that the defendant had a duty to prevent the circumstances that led to the injury and that the individual knowingly failed to uphold such a duty. Without this element, a negligence claim cannot succeed.
In Wheeling Park Commission v. Dattoli, the requirements of duty and knowledge were at the heart of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals’ determination that a park agency should not be held liable for injuries that occurred to a member of the public. In the case, Joseph Dattoli was injured while visiting a park maintained by the Wheeling Park Commission. Mr. Dattoli was leaning on a split rail fence when the fence collapsed. He suffered a rotator cuff injury that led to his being out of work for over six months. Mr. Dattoli brought a negligence claim against the Commission.
It is no small secret that courts throughout the country struggle to keep litigation moving forward in a time-efficient manner and to reduce backlogs of cases and disputes yet to be resolved. Many litigants now wait years to have their claims heard, all the while unable to move forward with their lives. At the same time, courts must be careful not to deny any individual their day in court, or the right to present evidence that they believe supports their case. For these reasons, one of the most significant challenges for the judiciary, and for those who are parties to litigation, is how to weigh the need for judicial efficiency against the right of every party to a fair trial. Often, as a matter of necessity, time constraints must be imposed on the amount of information that can be presented to the court, and the length of time that a trial can go on. A recent case in the Supreme Court of Appeals for West Virginia considers the appropriateness of limitations meant to restrict the amount of time a party has to present his or her argument.
In Sneberger v. Morrison, Ms. Sneberger made an oral agreement with Mr. Morrison to construct a primitive log home on her property. Mr. Morrison was not a contractor, but he offered to build the home for $140,000 based on her requests and specifications. After construction began, Ms. Sneberger began to notice problems with the home, including spaces between the logs, a sagging roof, and improper building of the fireplace. She eventually fired Mr. Morrison and hired a new contractor, who had to re-do a substantial portion of Mr. Morrison’s work because it was unsafe. Ms. Sneberger sued Mr. Morrison on various claims, including negligence. At trial, the jury awarded Ms. Sneberger $40,000 on her negligence claims, but it also found that she was partially at fault and comparatively negligent. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Sneberger appealed.