CHARLESTON -- A West Virginia case that reached the United States Supreme Court and prompted state lawmakers to change the law restricting out-of-state plaintiffs to sue here has ended with a verdict in favor of the defendants.
In 2004, Jeremiah "Bart" Morris sued Crown Equipment and Jefferds Corporation over a forklift accident that occurred in Virginia in 2002. Morris was a resident of Grottoes, Va., at the time of the accident, which caused the amputation of his lower left leg.
Morris filed his lawsuit in Kanawha County because Jefferds Corp., the distributor of the forklifts in question, has an office in St. Albans. Crown Equipment, which manufactured the forklift, is based in Ohio.
Critics say the suit was filed here in an attempt to get around Virginia's contributory negligence law and to have access to a West Virginia jury, which have a reputation for siding with plaintiffs.
But more than four years after the lawsuit was filed, a Kanawha jury found in favor of the defendants.
In a verdict handed down Feb. 2, the jury found that the forklift was not defective at the time it was manufactured, thus, Morris was not entitled to an award.
Morris had argued that the forklift should have come with a door to keep the driver inside.
The case spawned an appeal by Morris to the state Supreme Court over restrictions state lawmakers put in place in 2003 on when an out-of-state plaintiff could file suit in West Virginia.
The law said that all or a substantial portion of the circumstances that gave rise to the lawsuit had to occur in West Virginia.
Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman previously had dismissed the defendants from the lawsuit because of this law.
But state Supreme Court justices in 2006 ruled that the law violated the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the constitution, which guarantees that the rights of citizens in one state will be the same as those in other states.
That ruling made it possible for Morris to continue with his lawsuit and prompted lawmakers to tweak the state's venue law, giving judges the ability to decide where a case should be heard.
The defendants appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to review the judgment.
During the circuit court trial that ran from Jan. 15 to Feb. 2, Morris tried to prove that the defendants were liable for his injury because the design of the forklift was flawed.
Michael J. Farrell, one of the defendants' lawyers, said the theory that the forklift should have come with a door has been rejected by federal regulatory agencies.
"In addition to the approval of the design by ANSI, OSHA and NIOSH, Crown's evidence established that lower left leg injuries of this nature occurred only once in every 10,000,000 hours of machine use," Farrell said in an e-mail.
Kanawha Circuit Court case number: 04-C-1174