Helluva disgrace

By The West Virginia Record | Dec 19, 2008

In hindsight, it's hard to imagine there was much deliberation.

West Virginia didn't just earn the number one spot in the American Tort Reform Foundation's (ATRF) annual "Judicial Hellhole" pageant. It grabbed the gusto in an unadulterated rout.

Our credentials and track record supporting this dishonor always have been strong. But this past year, the shame has grown stronger.

The Mountain State figured to score high in each "hellhole" category with its rare triple-whammy of a hyper-partisan Supreme Court, a politically powerful and well-financed trial bar and an activist state attorney general, the pet of that bar.

Then, there were the actual jury verdicts, or the tort reformer's equivalent of a weightlifting competition. West Virginia finished with three of the top seven verdicts -- in the U.S.

That's three of the seven highest verdicts issued by any court in any state -- where about 298 million American citizens reside outside our borders.

Our notoriously pro-plaintiff state Supreme Court attracted the AFTR's disdain after it refused to hear appeals on two of the verdicts.

One verdict, against Massey Energy, slapped one of our state's largest private employers with $100 million in punitive damages, money that mostly will go to lawyers rather than the families of new hires at its mines.

A second verdict for $400 million against natural gas giant Chesapeake Energy led the company to cancel its plans to build a $35 million regional headquarters in Charleston. Given our court's predisposition, it is too risky to invest in West Virginia, a company spokesman said at the time.

Another, $381 million verdict against a large West Virginia employer, DuPont, did get an appeal hearing before the court. It came after Gov. Joe Manchin took the unprecedented step of petitioning the High Court to take the case.

Manchin is only one man.

And 2008's narrow electoral survival of his shadow governor, Attorney General Darrell McGraw, ensured that whatever our governor's intentions to make West Virginia more amenable to business, McGraw would be there to try to block him. That beat will go on for at least four more years, apparently.

We remain as skeptical as ATRF that West Virginia will be ready for reform any time soon. The lawyers and leaders who earned us the top "Hellhole" spot worked hard to get us there.

It's a long way down from that negative summit, and it's time for the citizenry to get pushy.

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