CHARLESTON –- A statewide legal reform group says it is waving a red flag over a January campaign fundraiser for new Putnam Circuit Judge Phillip M. Stowers.
Steve Cohen, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said he group is concerned that Stowers could preside over cases involving lawyers who just donated to his campaign fund, saying that could "compromise justice, especially in Stowers' courthouse where possible fraud already surrounds more than a hundred cases pending." Cohen was referring to medical malpractice claims against Dr. John A. King.
"The unseemly practice of judges funding their campaigns from lawyers who stand to profit from huge verdicts in their courtrooms begs for reform," said Cohen, adding that Stowers could preside over dozens of cases where video surveillance suggests plaintiff claims against the hospital where King worked are fraudulent.
In response, Stowers said he campaign committee has done nothing wrong.
In six of the first 10 of the 122 lawsuits against the former Putnam General Hospital (now CAMC Teays Valley), plaintiffs claim that damages from surgery at the Putnam hospital:
* prevented one plaintiff from dancing, though she is photographed doing just that at her daughter's wedding.
* complicated a plaintiff's ability to easily get into his motor vehicle, though video shows him doing so effortlessly.
* inhibited a plaintiff's ability to use his fingers, though he is captured on tape hoisting a case of beer.
* immobilized a plaintiff's spouse, though video shows the spouse routinely fetching mail from the front of their home
* left a plaintiff with severe back pain, even though the plaintiff was videotaped chopping wood and operating a woodcutter.
"It is especially important that the fundraising connection here not contaminate the impartiality of the court, especially with so much at stake in Judge Stowers' courtroom for the personal injury bar," Cohen said. He added that WV CALA has called for the Legislature to consider judicial selection reform as a way to take politics out of the legal system.
Stowers said he had a tough battle against former Putnam Circuit Judge Ed Eagloski, whom he narrowly defeated in the November election.
"The judge I defeated raised nearly $100,000 while he was a sitting judge," Stowers said. "Because of that, the campaign I ran cost me personally an exceptional amount of money. All my committee is doing is playing by the rules currently established by the Legislature and the West Virginia Supreme Court. If those rules are changed, we'll gladly play by the new rules.
"In fact, I'd gladly accept it."
Stowers said Feb. 3 that he didn't know how the Jan. 27 fundraiser, held at the Charleston House Holiday Inn, had went.
"My committee is separate and distinct from me," Stowers said. "It's people I don't talk to on a daily basis. And I'm strict about not knowing the names of people who donate to my campaign."