ALL THINGS JURY: West Virginia: Nation's worst legal climate?

By R. Robert Samples | Jun 4, 2008

Last week's announcement by Chesapeake Energy Corp. that it has stopped plans to build a new Eastern Division Headquarters facility in Charleston was a serious blow to the local, and state, economies.

Chesapeake cites the West Virginia Supreme Court's decision not to hear an appeal of a $405M jury verdict as the primary reason for the company's change of plans.

This decision, along with West Virginia's recent ranking by a survey of corporate attorneys as having the nation's worst legal climate (for the third consecutive year) prompted me to consider the impact this ranking has on our state's business climate.

Specifically, West Virginia's ranking caused me to consider the criteria that corporate attorneys utilize when assessing a state's legal climate.

Jury Verdicts -- do they lean pro-plantiff? Do they tend to be biased against business? Do juries deliver verdicts that seem inconsistent from other areas of the country? Bottom line, does the aggregate demographic/psychographic profile of the jury eligible population favor plaintiff cases against businesses?

Bench Rulings -- do rulings tend to be pro-plantiff or pro-business? Does the business community fear the impact of bench influence more than the plaintiff bar? Do lawyers and businesses generally view the state's appeal history as opportunity or obstacle?

Regulatory Environment -- how does the state's regulatory agencies compare to those in other areas of the country? Do they set a pro-business tone or do businesses view their work as more of a barrier rather than a partnership?

State Laws -- has the legislative branch been proactive in terms of bringing a balance to protecting the rights of individuals versus providing for a business climate that is conducive to the recruitment of new businesses and the growth of existing businesses?

While not a complete list of criteria needed to evaluate a state's legal climate, these are surely some of the most important considerations that corporate attorneys reviewed when responding to this survey. Additionally, I am sure many in West Virginia would argue that our state is, again, a victim of long-held misconceptions and propaganda.

However, if I've learned only one thing in my career in the communications business, it is that perception is reality. Therefore, it doesn't make any real difference if we agree, or disagree, with corporate attorneys around the country or debate the "real" reason a business decides not to expand its operations in West Virginia.

Rather, our concern is to learn how to deal with these perceptions. As a native West Virginian, I support efforts to improve our business climate. As a jury consultant, I work diligently to assist our clients in developing a winning trial strategy.

As with most issues, there are a myriad of elements that contribute to perceptions. In order to change perceptions of West Virginia's legal and business climates all of these elements must be addressed.

Samples is president of RMS Strategies, a communications and opinion research agency headquartered in Charleston. RMS Strategies has extensive crises communications, counseling and litigation research experience and has worked for clients throughout the nation during the last 25 years. They can be contacted at 304.343.7655 or

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