By STEVE COHEN

CHARLESTON -- West Virginia's identity crisis has been solved. No more need for all the "Open for Business," "Wild, Wonderful," "Almost Heaven" schizophrenia.

When you get down to it, Vanna White's smiling pose on our highway signs, official Web sites, road maps, travel brochures and other tourist literature best captures Mountain State life.

The popular game-show hostess -- actually cultural icon -- best affirms West Virginia's status as capital of the lawsuit industry, a wheel of fortune for vultures of the personal injury bar to augment their fleets of Porsches, Gulfstream jets, collections of seaside chateaus and valley-view villas.

Take, for example, the $135 million in legal fees and expenses shared among personal injury lawyers in a recent West Virginia court verdict, one of the largest in the nation, according to a recent survey published in the National Law Journal. It was one of three verdicts among the nation's seven biggest emanating from a West Virginia courtroom in just the past year.

One might expect the governor to greet the handful of personal injury lawyers on the courthouse steps presenting a foam core check, a Jack Whittaker jackpot justice payday of sorts.

In West Virginia's capital a smaller, but every bit as outrageous, court verdict has saddled a community hospital with a $25 million bill due to a doctor over his "damaged reputation." To put this into perspective, a California woman was recently awarded $9 million because her medical coverage was cancelled while being treated for breast cancer.

According to West Virginia courts, the reputation of a Charleston Area Medical Center doctor is valued at three times the life of a cancer victim in another state.

Gloating over her $8.2 million legal fee in the CAMC case, personal injury lawyer Karen Miller was quoted in a Charleston newspaper saying that the hospital's insurance policy would cover the $25 million verdict, as if that reimbursement appears out of thin air.

By the way, West Virginia's most vulnerable, our poor and disabled, may be interested to know that Ms. Miller's legal fee is equal to the amount cut from the state's Medicaid budget in this legislative session. Not to mention the potential impact on what patients may have to be charged by the hospital over this absurd lawsuit.

The imprint of the lawsuit industry on our state is now so indelible, personal injury lawyers are to West Virginia what dairy farmers are to Wisconsin and ten gallon hats are to Texas. A perky Vanna White at the plaintiffs' table in a West Virginia courtroom says it all.

Cohen is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. Visit their Web site at www.WVjusticewatch.org.




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