Business attempting to control W.Va. courts, attorney claims

By John O'Brien | Aug 18, 2008


CHARLESTON – In criticizing Gov. Joe Manchin's relationship with industrial giant DuPont, a prominent plaintiffs attorney has added something of a doomsday warning.

Mike Papantonio, who represented the State of Florida in landmark tobacco litigation and is the co-host of his own radio show with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., warned that he isn't through with West Virginia's first-term governor.

"I'm really tracing the back the documents, all the way back to organizations trying to influence the governor on other things," said Papantonio, the lead attorney on a Harrison County case that may cost DuPont $382 million.

Papantonio said he could not elaborate on what has turned up so far in a round of Freedom of Information Act requests sent to several state agencies. His first results showed that Manchin met with DuPont officials before filing an amicus brief urging the state Supreme Court to hear the company's appeal.

The Harrison County verdict required DuPont to pay $196 million in punitive damages after it was alleged the company dumped cadmium, lead and arsenic at a zinc-smelting plant in Spelter.

Papantonio, of Pensacola, Fla., firm Levin Papantonio Thomas Mitchell Echsner & Proctor, moved to strike Manchin's brief, calling it an "ethical no-no."

It won't be the last one uncovered, Papantonio feels. He said Manchin is too tight with business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the owner of The West Virginia Record.

"We are seeing some things that should concern the people of West Virginia," he said.

"There is definitely a concerted effort in West Virginia to close down the courthouse. It just so happens in the story we are turning up documents directly related to it.

"I can't go into a lot of details right now. This story is not just about DuPont. It's about other associated industries and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce influencing the governor's office and influencing regulatory agencies and courts in West Virginia."

The Mountain State is widely regarded as the least friendly for businesses. Of the seven highest civil verdicts in the country last year, three occurred in West Virginia.

One, a $404 million decision against Chesapeake Energy, led to the company not building a $35 million regional headquarters in Charleston. The state Supreme Court voted not to hear the company's appeal.

Papantonio also criticized Massey Energy for trying to affect West Virginia's courts. Company CEO Don Blankenship spent more than $3 million supporting Justice Brent Benjamin in his 2004 race, and photographs surfaced last year of Chief Justice Spike Maynard in Monaco with longtime friend Blankenship.

However, the justices controversially overturned a $76 million verdict against the company (it is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court) but voted not to hear a costlier one ($220 million).

Manchin said last week that he hasn't sided with anyone. He just wants the state Supreme Court to examine its procedures for reviewing punitive damages.

"Our brief is solely based on the issue of due process and whether or not our Supreme Court follows the same standards as established by the U.S. Supreme Court with regard to the right to appeal punitive damages," Manchin said.

"We did not take sides in the actual case in any way and want any citizen that has been adversely affected to get the benefits and compensation that they deserve."

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