W.Va. SC: Court right to deny motion to stay wrongful death suit

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Apr 5, 2012

CHARLESTON - The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, in a ruling last month, denied a writ of prohibition seeking to prevent a lower court from enforcing an order denying a motion to stay a wrongful death lawsuit.

Petitioner Julie Massanopoli Piper, on behalf of defendant William Piper's estate, asked the state's high court for a writ to stop the Jefferson County Circuit Court from enforcing its October 2011 denial of a stay of the underlying action, pending final resolution on appeal of a declaratory judgment involving insurance coverage against State Farm Fire and Casualty Company.

William Piper and Kyle Hoffman Jr. were killed in a car accident in October 2007. Piper was the driver, Hoffman was the passenger.

Two years later, Robin Skinner Prinz, on behalf of Hoffman's estate, filed a lawsuit in Jefferson Circuit Court.

The complaint contained four counts. Among those most relevant, count one asserts a wrongful death claim against Piper's estate, and count four asserts a declaratory judgment claim against State Farm.

According to the complaint, William Piper's grandfather maintained a personal liability umbrella policy through State Farm that provided coverage to William Piper as a relative whose primary residence was his grandfather's household.

The parties filed a joint motion to bifurcate, or split, the wrongful death and declaratory judgment actions and moved for a stay of the wrongful death claim pending a full and final resolution of Prinz's declaratory judgment action against State Farm.

In July 2010, the circuit court granted the motions to bifurcate and to stay the wrongful death action pending resolution of the declaratory judgment action.

The circuit court conducted a jury trial on the declaratory judgment action in June 2011, in which it found that the State Farm umbrella policy provides liability coverage for William Piper's allegedly negligent actions.

The court subsequently entered a scheduling order, to which none of the parties objected, providing a trial date of Jan. 17, 2012 for the wrongful death action.

State Farm filed a notice of appeal of the declaratory judgment with the state Supreme Court.

In turn, Piper's estate filed a motion for a stay of the wrongful death action pending the Court's resolution of State Farm's appeal. Prinz opposed the motion for a stay.

On Oct. 31, 2011, the circuit court denied the motion.

A month later, Piper's estate petitioned the state's high court, praying for a writ of prohibition to be directed against the circuit court to prohibit enforcement of its order denying the stay.

In its per curiam opinion filed March 23, the Court said the lower court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to further stay the wrongful death proceedings.

"The circuit court exercised its discretion by bifurcating the declaratory judgment action from the wrongful death action and by allowing the declaratory judgment action to proceed," the Court wrote in its 10-page ruling.

"Moreover, the circuit court stayed the wrongful death action pending the outcome of the trial of the declaratory judgment action. None of these decisions of the circuit court evidences an abuse of the circuit court's discretion."

The circuit court is not required to exercise its discretion in a "particular manner," or that a bifurcated coverage issue must, in every instance, be finally resolved before the merits of an underlying liability claim may be addressed, the Court explained.

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