CHARLESTON – Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse has released a survey about what West Virginians think about the state’s legal climate.
The survey was completed by Mark Blankenship Enterprises and questioned more than 600 registered voters in West Virginia about the state’s legal climate.
Greg Thomas, the executive director of WV CALA, said the survey showed that 57 percent of the participants believe there is a need for an intermediate appellate court.
More than half of the participants also think that passing lawsuit reform would be beneficial.
Twenty-five percent of participants strongly support and 32 percent somewhat support the addition of having the automatic right to appeal in every case.
“West Virginia is the only state in the country where you don’t have an automatic right to appeal,” Thomas said. “The way it is now, appeals are filed in the state Supreme Court and they decide if they want to hear them.”
Thomas said West Virginia has a reputation as a place where the courts are not fair, despite recent judicial reforms.
In the survey, participants listed jobs and economy as the most important issue to them, followed by the education system, taxes and the legal climate.
“Lawsuit reform is an issue important to voters, especially because of the positive impact legal reform could have on the job market and economic climate of the state,” Thomas said.
The survey found that 74 percent of participants support legislation that would create a transparent process for when the attorney general hires private lawyers and set limits on the amount of fees these attorneys could collect from the state.
Thomas said Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's reform plans address this issue.
"The previous attorney general, Darrell McGraw, abused the public trust by making backroom deals where he would appoint his big campaign contributors to file highly lucrative lawsuits on behalf of the state," Thomas said. "McGraw appeared to use his official office as if it were a taxpayer-funded, full-time political campaign office, as demonstrated by his around-the-clock advertising to prominently promote his name under the guise of consumer awareness."
Thomas said Morrisey's announcement on Feb. 11 shows that he is working hard to take a new direction and help build respect for the Office of Attorney General.
"WV CALA supports his efforts to institute a transparent competitive bidding process for private attorneys hired by state agencies and will work to support legislative action on this measure during this year's session," Thomas said.
Thomas said Morrisey's reform plans are a laudable first step toward reforming the legal climate in West Virginia and help bring jobs back to the state.
Only 60 percent of participants express trust and confidence the Legislature will address the issues most important to them this year.
The West Virginia Association for Justice dismissed the poll, calling it "nothing more than propaganda to advance to unnecessary pieces of legislation."
West Virginia Association for Justice President Scott Blass called the survey a “push-poll.”
“This so-called ‘poll’ is not news. Its results are exactly what CALA wanted them to be…CALA fed information to the respondents and the respondents voted just the way CALA wanted them to vote,” Blass said. “It’s like asking a fan at Mountaineer Field wearing a WVU sweatshirt who he or she wants to win the game.”
Blass, an attorney with Bordas & Bordas in Wheeling, said the right of appeal exists in West Virginia and always has.
“The West Virginia Supreme Court’s revised rules further ensure that there is no question about that right,” Blass said. “Even the West Virginia Chamber agrees on that point.”
Blass also said an intermediate appellate court would waste millions of taxpayer dollars.
“They are unnecessary in small states like West Virginia, and the number of appeals is declining,” he said.
The survey also found that 66 percent of participants believe that if someone is sued and found to be only partially responsible for an accident, the defendant should only have to pay an amount equal to their degree of responsibility, while 18 percent still believe defendants should pay the entire amount. Sixteen percent were unsure.