CHARLESTON – A battle is brewing over a bill that would limit lawsuits filed by out-of-state residents.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse are urging Gov. Joe Manchin to veto the so-called venue bill. The state Chamber of Commerce and the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, meanwhile, are pushing for the bill's passage. The U.S. Chamber owns The West Virginia Record.
The U.S. Chamber says House Bill 2956, which was unanimously passed by both chambers of the Legislature during the just-ended regular session, say the proposal isn't strong enough.
"The West Virginia Legislature passed strong venue reform in 2003, which courts have subsequently thrown out," said Larry Akey, spokesman for the U.S. Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform. "The legislation that has just passed is not as strong as the 2003 law."
If it becomes law, the bill would allow defendants sued in civil cases to seek to have the suit removed to another more appropriate venue. The judge then would decide if such a move was warranted.
Manchin spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said Thursday that the governor won't make a decision on the bill until he has thoroughly reviewed it.
The case at the heart of this issue -- Morris vs. Crown Equipment and Jefferds -- centered on a plaintiff who lived and worked in Virginia. He filed suit in 2004 in Kanawha Circuit Court claiming he suffered an injury operating a forklift at work.
Morris claimed damages from Crown Equipment as the forklift manufacturer and Jefferds Corporation as the distributor responsible for service. Crown Equipment and Jefferds Corporation moved to dismiss, relying on a law the Legislature passed in 2003 that provided that nonresidents could not sue "unless all or a substantial part of the acts or omissions giving rise to the claim asserted occurred in this state."
Akey said several attorneys think the just-passed legislation, which is on Manchin's desk, will open up West Virginia courts to out-of-state suits that would not otherwise be admitted.
"In addition, we think this legislation gives undue deference to the plaintiff's choice of venue that the current statute does not give," he said. "In short, this may be worse than no bill at all."
Akey said the true result of the bill wouldn't be known until the courts had a chance to rule on it.
"But that's a risk not worth taking," he said. "A better alternative is to reject this legislation and start again next time the legislature meets.
WV CALA Executive Director Steve Cohen also is pushing for a veto.
"The bottom line is that West Virginia taxpayers should not have to pay for out-of-state lawsuits," he said. "The bill that passed doesn't fix the venue problem. West Virginia cannot be a favorite place to sue for out-of-state personal injury lawyers. We need a bill that effectively deals with liberal judges and jackpot juries.
"As Justice (Spike) Maynard said, we need to give West Virginia residents, 'who after all pay for our courts, ready access to them when needed.' Higher court costs from these out-of-state lawsuit s will be paid by West Virginia taxpayers. We must stop this abuse."
Meanwhile, the president of the state Chamber of Commerce says his group also would like a stronger bill.
But Steve Roberts also says the state Chamber is standing behind the bill because it the product of negotiations between the Chamber, the Trial Lawyers Association and legislators.
"We are very quick to say we wanted more," he said. "This was all the Legislature was wiling to negotiate. It was, at the time, was our belief that this was an acceptable bill.
"And having participated in the negotiations, we are sticking by the bill. We're doing that because it's the bill we and the other parties agreed to."
Roberts said he understands that the U.S. Chamber has a different stance, but said he wouldn't call the relationship between the state Chamber and the national Chamber a rift.
"I just hope they understand why we're taking the stance we're taking on this," he said. "But the bottom line is that our relationship with the U.S. Chamber is that we are dues paying members" and not an affiliate of the national group.
Roberts also said the legislative process lends itself to smaller changes rather than one major one.
"You tend to do these things incrementally," he said. "The system pushes you toward steady adjustment until you get it right.
"We understand where they (the U.S. Chamber) are coming from. But we're driven by the fact that we gave our word."
The president of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association praised the state Chamber's work in the negotiations on the bill.
But Jeff Jones had harsh words for the national Chamber.
"First, the U.S. Chamber agreed to this bill twice," he said. "It was their bill, their roadmap."
Jones said the U.S. Chamber wants the 2003 bill that was declared unconstitutional last year.
"What we did was look at how the law is in West Virginia, and we took into consideration Justice (Joseph) Albright's opinion in the Crown Equipment case," he said.
Jones said the U.S. Chamber has been putting pressure on the state Chamber on this issue.
"If this bill gets signed, what this is going to do is going to take away an issue for the U.S. Chamber to bash us on," he said, referring to the Chamber's long-held stance about the state's court system.
In the Morris case, he hooked his claim to West Virginia by suing the distributor of the forklift as well as the manufacturer. Jefferds does business as Homestead Materials Handling Company. A phone book shows numbers for Jefferds in Nitro, St. Albans and Cross Lanes. He filed the suit over a leg injury he suffered at an Alcoa factory in Virginia.
Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman dismissed the defendants in 2004. Morris appealed under the Privileges and Immunities Clause.
Last June, the state Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the 2003 law was unconstitutional, saying restrictions on out-of-state plaintiffs were unconstitutional. In December, the United States Supreme Court refused to review an appeal of the state Supreme Court decision.
That means Jeremiah "Bart" Morris of Virginia can continue to pursue his injury claim against Crown Equipment and Jefferds Corporation in West Virginia.
In the state Supreme Court ruling in June, West Virginia Chief Justice Robin Davis and Justices Larry Starcher and Joseph Albright agreed that the 2003 law was unconstitutional.
"There is a strong constitutional disfavoring of the categorical exclusion of nonresident plaintiffs from a state's courts under venue statutes when a state resident would be permitted to bring a similar suit," Starcher wrote in the majority opinion.
Justice Brent Benjamin found no constitutional violation but agreed that Morris could pursue his claim in West Virginia. Justice Spike Maynard dissented, declaring that the majority eviscerated a statutory safeguard against abuse of West Virginia courts.