CHARLESTON -– A legal reform group has started an online petition that seeks signatures from people who want to stop job losses due to the state's "broken" legal system.
West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse has posted the petition on its Web site at www.wvcala.com. The petition is meant to gain the attention of state lawmakers who are currently in regular session.
The petition was prompted by Chesapeake Energy's recent announcement that it would eliminate 215 of 255 Charleston-based jobs.
The company said the decision was partly due to a $405 million verdict in Roane County. The class-action lawsuit alleged that landowners were being cheated out of natural gas royalties.
The verdict amount largely was for punitive damages.
Chesapeake appealed the ruling to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which declined to hear the case.
"We can no longer afford to lose well-paying jobs to other states," WV CALA Executive Director Steve Cohen said. "For years now our state has ranked last in terms of litigation fairness and has been cited as the worst state in the nation to do business.
"Year after year, our state's politicians have swept needed legal reforms under the rug. Their inaction is unacceptable. The Chesapeake exodus is a reminder our courts are a ticking time bomb."
In announcing the company's decision to eliminate the jobs, CEO Aubrey McClendon said, "until West Virginia's judicial system provides far and unbiased access to its courts for everyone, a prudent company must be very cautious in committing further resources in the state."
Some critics, such as Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, said Chesapeake's pointing a finger at the state's legal system was little more than a ruse.
Carper said the company more likely eliminated the jobs because of mismanagement compounded with the falling price of natural gas. Carper called on lawmakers to raise severance taxes on natural resources.
But CALA is sticking with McClendon's statement.
"The broken lawsuit system is stealing the future of West Virginia's best resource, our young people," Cohen said. "The reality of court rulings in this state has shown the clear impact on West Virginia workers and families."
Cohen noted that U.S. News & World Report last month showed West Virginia to be the worst state for jobs because of its legal climate.
He also pointed to a recent Fortune magazine ranking which listed Chesapeake as one of the 100 best companies to work for.
Gov. Joe Manchin in his State of the State address last month said he would create a commission to study the state's legal system.
Cohen said first on the commission's agenda should be establishing an intermediate appellate court, which would give all appeals full consideration.
As it is now, the state Supreme Court has the final say on whether appeals will be granted a full review.