CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, in a ruling last week, upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss a motion for a new trial in a lawsuit brought over a man’s electrocution.
The Court on May 16 affirmed the Wyoming Circuit Court’s September 2010 order.
In his motion for a new trial, plaintiff Bobby Messer argued that a juror, Robert Helmandollar, should have been removed.
Messer, who was employed by Rectron Inc. as a lineman, came into contact with an energized electric transmission line in Mingo County in September 2005.
As a result, he suffered various injuries, and eventually his left arm and right leg required amputation.
At the time of the accident, Rectron was working on behalf of its affiliate, Electric Line Company Inc., in performing electrical services for Hampden Coal Company LLC.
Although certain portions of the power circuitry had been tested to determine if they were energized, the power line on which Messer was working on the day of the accident had not been properly tested, and Messer had been instructed to remove certain transformers and cut-out switches from an electric pole.
That phase of the circuitry had been utilized by Alltel Communications of Ohio No. 3 Inc. to power a cellular phone tower, and the energized phase had branched off from the main power line at a point between the location of prior testing and the location where Messer was injured.
More than a year after the accident, Messer sued Rectron and Electric Line, alleging they had acted with deliberate intent. Messer also included a common-law negligence and trespass assertion against Alltel.
Messer then added claims against Hampden, Rockhouse Creek Development LLC, Morlan Enterprises Inc. and Paul Kerns, which either had an ownership interest in the property on which the accident occurred or had some degree of connection to the electrical work being performed on the site.
However, prior to trial, Messer settled with or voluntarily dismissed all parties except Hampden.
Messer’s central allegation against the coal company is that it was negligent in failing to disclose the active status of the electrical line on which he was injured.
But at the core of the appeal before the state’s high court is the selection of Helmandollar as a jury member.
In preparation for the trial, a voir dire examination was conducted of potential jurors.
At the time, Helmandollar explained that he earned a degree in electrical engineering technology and was employed by a coal company as a general maintenance foreman. He performed electrical work, including working on power lines and using equipment such as rubber gloves, insulated poles and voltage detection devices.
After additional questioning by Messer’s lawyers, Helmandollar said the expert electrical testimony at the trial and the necessity to disregard his own beliefs and experience would not make him uncomfortable.
He reiterated to Hampden’s lawyers that he would be able to serve as an unbiased, fair juror.
Messer’s lawyers ultimately moved to excuse Helmandollar.
The Wyoming Circuit Court refused.
In September 2009, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Hampden.
Soon after, Messer filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that Helmandollar should’ve been removed.
The circuit court denied the motion, and Messer appealed.
The Supreme Court, in its 26-page ruling, said a review of the transcript reveals that Helmandollar “clearly indicated” his willingness to disregard his own preconceptions and weigh the evidence fairly.
“Mr. Helmandollar’s education, training and experience are to be addressed as all other issues in the voir dire examination, with reference to whether such matters render him ineligible for service due to bias or prejudice. This is exactly the inquiry undertaken by the trial court in this matter, and this Court finds no basis for a conclusion that the trial court abused its discretion or expressed any doubt concerning Mr. Helmandollar’s impartiality and eligibility to serve as a juror,” Justice Thomas McHugh wrote for the Court.
In particular, Helmandollar did not express any belief or opinion that would indicate an inability to follow the instructions of the lower court and to assess the evidence in a fair and impartial manner, the Court said.
“Moreover, in consideration of the totality of the circumstances as well as a thorough examination of the entire voir dire, Mr. Helmandollar acknowledged in unequivocal terms that he could perform his duties as a juror without bias or prejudice,” McHugh wrote.
“There is no indication in this case that Mr. Helmandollar was biased or prejudiced, had predetermined the outcome of the case, or was otherwise ineligible for service. He specifically indicated that his personal experiences would not prevent him from rendering an impartial verdict, and he affirmatively stated that he would serve as an impartial juror despite his personal history.”
The circuit court was in the “optimal position” to determine whether any opinions Helmandollar may have expressed during voir dire warranted his removal from the jury, the Court added.
Justice Robin Davis was disqualified from the case.
Her husband, attorney Scott Segal of The Segal Law Firm in Charleston, represented Messer and participated in some of the voir dire questioning.