CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals issued an opinion that answered three certified questions and ruled that the county commission was not liable for a man’s beating at the annual fair.

Through three certified questions, Mason Circuit Court sought clarification from the Supreme Court regarding the applicability of the West Virginia Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act to claims made by an individual injured while attending the Mason County Fair, according to the Nov. 1 opinion.

At the center of each of the inquiries propounded by the circuit court is Larry D. Pyles Jr. and Pamela Pyles’ attempt to assert vicarious liability against the Mason County Commission based on a purported joint venture between the commission and the fair.

“After reformulating the questions submitted to us to conform to the facts of this case, we determine that either the immunity provisions of the Act or the public duty doctrine operates to prevent the plaintiffs from seeking liability against the Commission under the facts of this case,” the opinion states.

Chief Justice Allen Loughry authored the majority opinion.

On Aug. 9, 2013, the plaintiffs were attendees at the fair. At approximately 9:45 p.m., Larry Pyles was beaten by three teenagers while standing in the midway area of the fair. As a result of the attack, he suffered a traumatic brain injury with post-concussion syndrome and other non-specified permanent disabilities.

On Dec. 5, 2014, the couple filed a complaint against the Fair Board seeking damages for negligence and loss of consortium. The Fair Board filed a third-party complaint against the three individuals who attacked Larry Pyles, seeking contribution and indemnity for any liability assessed against it in connection with Larry Pyles’ injuries. Later, the plaintiffs added the commission as a defendant.

On Jan. 4, the plaintiffs sought leave to file a second amended complaint to insert an allegation that the Fair Board and the commission were engaged in a joint venture with regard to the staging and operation of the annual fair.

Based on this alleged joint venture, the plaintiffs asserted that the commission owned a duty to the plaintiffs that exceeded any general duty owned by any law enforcement agency to the public at large.

The commission opposed the attempt to re-amend the complaint, arguing that such an amendment would be futile because the additional theory of recovery “does not obviate the public duty doctrine.”

The circuit court heard arguments of counsel on the plaintiffs’ motion to re-amend the complaint on Feb. 22.

Finding it unnecessary to resolve any factual issues regarding the alleged joint venture to decide the motion to amend, the circuit court denied the motion on the grounds that such amendment would be futile.

The circuit court reasoned that, even assuming the existence of a joint venture for the purpose of ruling on the motion, the Act affords immunity to the Commission for the injuries sustained by Larry Pyles while at the fair. In addition, the circuit court ruled that the Commission only owed Larry Pyles the general duty of care that any political subdivision owes to the public at large.

As part of its ruling, the circuit court, with the agreement of counsel, certified three questions to the Supreme Court.

The first question was “if a political subdivision enters into a joint venture with a private entity to conduct an annual county fair on real property owned by the political subdivision, does the West Virginia Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act provide the political subdivision with immunity from vicarious liability for injuries suffered by a non-trespassing entrant on the real property caused by the negligent acts of the private entity?”

The second: “If a political subdivision enters into a joint venture with a private entity to conduct an annual county fair on real property owned by the political subdivision, does the political subdivision assume the same legal duty to non-trespassing entrants on the real property as that of the private entity?”

And the third: “Does the existence of a joint venture between a political subdivision and a private entity to conduct an annual county fair on real property owned by the political subdivision, void/abrogate any of the immunities provided by the West Virginia Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act?”

The circuit court answered the first question in the affirmative and the second and third questions in the negative.

“Upon our review of the certified questions, we conclude that those queries must be reframed in order that the issues presented in this case may be fully and properly addressed,” Loughry wrote.

The first question was reframed as: “When a county commission enters into a usage agreement with a private, non-profit entity pursuant to which the private entity conducts an annual county fair on land owned by the commission and the county commission has no control with regard to the operations of the fair and does not receive any monetary compensation from the operation of the fair, does the agreement between the county commission and the private entity constitute a joint venture?”

The second was reframed as: “Do individuals engaged by a private entity to work at a county fair on land owned by a county commission qualify as ‘employees’ of the county commission for purposes of the West Virginia Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act?”

The third was reframed as: “Where a county fair is operated by a private entity on property owned by a county commission, does the commission owe a special duty of care to individuals who attend the fair or merely the same duty of care that is owed to the public in general?”

The Supreme Court answered all three questions in the negative.

“Accordingly, we hold that the agreement of a county commission to permit a private, non-profit entity to hold a county fair on land owned by the county commission which fails to provide for the sharing of both profits and losses and coequal control over the fair operations does not constitute a joint venture,” Loughry wrote. “We further find that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ motion to amend their complaint given that the existence of immunity under the Act or the public duty doctrine compelled the dismissal of the Commission from this case.”

Just as there was no basis in the record to establish the existence of a joint venture, there is absolutely no basis for the plaintiffs’ claim that the workers chosen by the Fair Board to work at the fair qualified as employees of the County Commission within the meaning of the Act, according to the opinion.

“The County Commission did not select, hire, or have any control whatsoever with regard to the individuals the Fair Board utilized to work at the fair,” Loughry wrote. “Absent any evidence that the fair workers came within the Act’s definition of an ‘employee,’ the plaintiffs cannot proceed on its theory that the County Commission is liable for Mr. Pyles’ injuries due to the negligence of the fair workers.”

As the record of this case makes clear, the only duty owed by the Mason County Commission to the plaintiffs is the general duty that it owed to the public.

“The plaintiffs’ own expert, Dr. R. Paul McCauley, testified that the Mason County Sheriff’s Department, and by extension the County Commission, only owed a general duty to the plaintiffs,” Loughry wrote. 

Because the plaintiffs have failed to identify any basis for holding the Mason County Commission to any duty other than the general duty that is owed to the public at large, the Supreme Court ruled that it is compelled to answer the third reframed certified question in the negative.

W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals case number: 17-0300

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