Cohen

By STEVE COHEN

CHARLESTON -- March Madness came a month early this year. And it came not on a basketball court but rather in one of our state courts with a lawsuit award $271 million higher than the actual damages of the case.

The $405 million total award was handed to Chesapeake Energy, a company Gov. Joe Manchin identified in his State of the State address last year as a source of "high-paying, intellectually challenging" jobs for West Virginians.

Oklahoma-based Chesapeake, one of the nation's largest natural gas producers, had indeed made a commitment to build a regional headquarters with a workforce of 250 and an annual payroll of $20 million. This in an industry which will invest a billion dollars in West Virginia this year, providing a paycheck to 14,000 workers in our state.

But thanks to this February madness, those new West Virginia jobs are now on hold because of the lawsuit verdict, according to Chesapeake's regional vice-president, Mike John.

"It gives us pause when looking to expend capital in West Virginia," said John of punitive damages that are nearly $300 million more than the amount the court decided the plaintiffs needed to be compensated in the case.

Observers of West Virginia's courts have seen numbers out of kilter before. Remember the personal injury lawyer here who pocketed legal fees 16 times higher than the amount his client received? Madness.

What's more maddening? Before the Chesapeake verdict, the state's largest punitive damages award was a paltry $34 million punitive damages award in 2002, less than 1/8th the size of the Chesapeake punitives!

It's precisely this kind of madness that has employers all over the world wondering if West Virginia truly is "open for business."

In a recent survey, nationwide employers ranked West Virginia's legal climate worst in the nation. Also, a 2007 study by the nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based Corporation for Enterprise Development gave West Virginia a "failing grade" for "business competitiveness and positioning for economic growth."

Sadly, the lack of steady employment here is one reason which led a national education research group in January to place West Virginia in the bottom fifth of states for "a child's chance of success."

One would think the jobs climate in West Virginia would make our leaders as dispirited as the West Virginia Universty Mountaineers on Georgetown's home court not long ago. But the governor and our Legislature can do what John Beilien and his team do in the face of adversity: address it head on.

Save the madness for the Final Four in Atlanta.

Cohen is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

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