BECKLEY – A man involved in one of the most publicized – and most tried – court cases in state history now finds himself the defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Hugh M. Caperton is a defendant in a case filed by the estate of a man who died after falling 30 feet to his death at a Beckley property owned by Caperton.
Jesse Harrah Jr. filed the lawsuit in Raleigh Circuit Court against Caperton, Preston Investments LLC, Kathy Haynes Caperton and the City of Beckley on behalf of the estate of David Wayne Harrah.
According to the complaint, the Capertons own Preston Investments LLC. They owned and maintained commercial property known as the old Beckley Newspapers building located at 345 Prince Street in Beckley.
On May 16, according to the complaint, David Wayne Harrah was walking along Prince Street beside the property.
“A metal walkway connected to the property is adjacent to the public sidewalk,” the complaint states. “At this time, there were no fences, warning signs or other barriers warning any person walking on the public sidewalk that this property was unsafe, dilapidated, unfit for human occupancy, worn down, in disrepair and an attractive and public nuisance.”
The complaint says that it is impossible to know what happened exactly, but it appears Harrah walked from the public sidewalk to the metal walkway “and then fell through an opening where, for some reason, a portion of the metal grated walkway was missing.” It says a portion of Harrah’s blue jeans was found around the edges of this opening.
“When Mr. Harrah’s body was discovered on the ground below, it was determined he had fallen over thirty feet to his death,” the complaint states. “Shortly after Mr. Harrah’s death, defendant City of Beckley installed a chain link fence in the area of the property’s metal walkway and placed a warning device near the hole through which Mr. Harrah fell.”
The plaintiff accuses the defendants of negligence, and says they are to blame for David Wayne Harrah’s death. He seeks compensatory damages for all of the deceased’s beneficiaries for sorrow, mental anguish, solace, loss of income as well as for loss of services, protection, care and assistance.
In 1998, Caperton sued Massey Energy, saying Massey CEO Don Blankenship told officials to break a coal supply contract with Caperton's Harman Mining Company and to take other actions that forced the company into bankruptcy.
In 2001, a Virginia jury had awarded Caperton’s companies $6 million for breach of contract. Later, another case was filed in West Virginia alleging fraud and tortious interference. That case brought a $50 million jury award in 2002, but that was overturned in 2007 by the West Virginia Supreme Court, which said the case needed to be filed in Virginia as well.
The case was heard again in 2008 by the West Virginia Supreme Court after Blankenship’s personal ties to former Justice and lifelong friend Spike Maynard were revealed. The court issued the same ruling.
But Caperton appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking the recusal of West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin, who the U.S. Supreme Court said benefited from Blankenship’s political spending in the 2004 race when he defeated incumbent Justice Warren McGraw.
The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the case to be reheard by the West Virginia Supreme Court. In 2008, the West Virginia high court heard the case a third time and issued the same ruling to dismiss the case.
Caperton then filed the case in Virginia in 2010, and it originally was dismissed. He appealed that to the Virginia Supreme Court, which said the case should be heard. That resulted in the $5 million 2014 verdict.
Earlier this year, however, a Virginia circuit judge ordered a new trial in the case. Judge Henry Vanover wrote in a Jan. 7 letter that the award was insufficient and that it “likely reflects a clear misunderstanding of the facts.” He also called the verdict “plainly inadequate and unjust” and said a new trial on damages in the case is needed.
The judge said a Massey attorney had made a statement during closing arguments that wasn’t backed up by evidence in the trial. A spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources, which acquired Massey in 2011, said the company is reviewing its options in light of Vanover’s letter.
Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh attorney who has represented Caperton through the Massey case, said Monday a jury trial is set on damages for February in Grundy, Va.
In the recent Raleigh Circuit Court case, Jesse Harrah Jr. is being represented by Charleston attorneys J. Timothy DiPiero, Lonnie C. Simmons and Robert M. Bastress III of DiTrapano, Barrett, DiPiero, McGinley and Simmons PLLC. The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Robert Burnside.
Raleigh Circuit Court case number: 15-C-419