CHARLESTON – As the curtain falls on this year’s legislative session, we all should applaud the members of the West Virginia Legislature for their abilities to tackle big issues, particularly lawsuit reforms, which will move our state forward and into the national mainstream.
Our Legislature, working in tandem with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, put into law a good-government outside counsel rule requiring transparency and competitive bidding for the hiring of private attorneys to represent the state and its agencies. This legislation establishes strong ethical guidelines for attorneys general, and the competitive bidding requirement will help ensure taxpayers’ dollars are spent efficiently.
The Legislature also passed a commonsense reform to ensure that individuals accused of criminal and wrongful acts cannot file lawsuits if they were injured as a result of their own criminal activity. This reform was needed to correct a ruling by activist judges on our Supreme Court of Appeals, led by Justice Brent Benjamin, who refused to acknowledge the wrongful conduct rule.
Bringing our state’s legal system in line with a majority of states has been a priority of State Senate President Bill Cole and House Speaker Tim Armstead. They helped to lead the Legislature in reinstating the learned intermediary doctrine, which had been struck down by the Supreme Court.
Learned intermediary refers to the key role of the physician in determining the best approach to medical care. Our state has been the only one in the country not recognizing the learned intermediary doctrine in recent history. Thankfully the Legislature realigned our law with the rest of the country.
In addition, the Legislature enacted the well-established doctrine of successor liability, which ensures that businesses that have grown or expand by purchasing another business cannot be subject to claims alleging they share responsibility for asbestos exposure if they had no involvement with asbestos in their history.
These reforms passed in 2016 build upon the bipartisan reforms passed last year, and they all send a message that our state is committed to ensuring legal fairness and impartiality for everyone. In recognition of our improving civil justice system, last December the American Tort Reform Foundation’s annual “Judicial Hellhole” report to no longer included West Virginia in the Judicial Hellhole category.
Some challenges remain, however. West Virginia continues to be an outlier in how we handle our appeals process. We are one of only nine states without an intermediate court of appeals, and we remain the only state in the country that doesn’t provide a full appeal of right for civil and criminal cases. We encourage lawmakers to consider establishing an intermediate court of appeals and address our outlier status on this issue.
These lawsuit reforms will help make our state more attractive to job creators, including existing small businesses and employers that may be looking to locate here. These reforms can encourage the growth of more opportunities for West Virginians and a boost to our economy.
We applaud Governor Tomblin, Senate President Bill Cole, House Speaker Tim Armstead, Attorney General Morrisey, and every member of the West Virginia Legislature who supported these much-needed legal reforms.
Stauffer is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.