Davis denounces idea of intermediate appellate courts in West Virginia

By Justin Anderson | May 28, 2009


CHARLESTON -- West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Robin Jean Davis denounced the idea of an intermediate appellate court system for the state as costly and unneccesary.

"For anyone to suggest that our court does not review cases is just flat wrong," Davis told a group of lawyers Thursday at a continuing legal education event sponsored by West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

Many have called for the creation of one in order to ensure that all petitions for appeal get a full review, especially ones involving punitive damages.

Gov. Joe Manchin has signed an executive order to create a commission to study the state's judiciary and intermediate appellate courts is expected to be one of the topics.

At the WV CALA event, Davis said the court thoroughly reviews all petitions filed, adding that if there isn't any apparent error in the trial court, the Supreme Court doesn't take up the case.

Davis said the justices complete their work and rarely extend an opinion into another term of the court.

Besides the unneccessariness of an intermediate appellate court, Davis said the cost would be "astronomical."

Davis said she's aware of one estimate that says adding another layer to the judiciary would add $500,000 per year just in judicial pension costs.

"We are a small state," Davis said. "We have solid trial judges who get their work done ... and why in the world we would add another level of (judiciary) in our state is beyond me."

One of the event's attendees said they believe either an intermediate appellate court or an automatic right to appeal punitive damage cases is imminent and asked Davis which she would prefer.

Davis said she would more prefer an automatic appeal in punitive damage cases, just on the basis of keeping costs down and controlling the size of government.

Manchin has commented that he would like to see this after a jury in Harrison County awarded people who live around a DuPont smelter $196 million in punitive damages.

Davis said she "strongly" disagrees with Manchin's inference that the Supreme Court doesn't fully review such cases. She said the governor is "simply wrong."

Davis added that she doesn't see a "crisis" -- as some critics put it -- in the way of a proliferation of huge punitive damage awards in the state.

Other than the DuPont case and a couple others, Davis said she's seen only a "handful" of punitive damage awards of $1 million or more over the last several years.

And Davis said these kinds of cases the state sees aren't frivolous.

"When we see a big case, somebody was really hurt or somebody has done something really bad," Davis said.

Davis added that the state's trial court judges are becoming very adept that deciding whether jury punitive awards are justified.

She noted a recent case in Kanawha County when a jury awarded a doctor $20 million in punitive damages after Charleston Area Medical Center revoked his privileges after he tried set up his own medical malpractice insurance policy.

A judge later reduced the punitive damages to $8 million.

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