CHARLESTON – Those invested in the state’s legal system saw most court-related legislation take a backseat this session to the teacher work stoppage and subsequent pay raise bill.
As a result, the leaders of two state legal groups say they didn’t see much success this session.
“This legislative session was different than prior years because of the teachers’ strike,” said Roman Stauffer, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. “That was obviously the central focus of legislators. Many of the legal reforms we were advocating for were moving along well until that heated up. Of course, we understand that addressing something like seatbelt admissibility or med monitoring wasn’t as dire as taking care of the teachers’ issues.”
One high point for WV CALA, according to Stauffer, was the passage of a bill that will curb many instances of out-of-state plaintiffs filing lawsuits in West Virginia courts. House Bill 4013 was the result of work involving WV CALA, the West Virginia Association for Justice, the state Chamber of Commerce and others.
If signed by Gov. Jim Justice, HB 4013 would eliminate most instances of out-of-state plaintiffs being able to file lawsuits in West Virginia for alleged harm that happened elsewhere.
“That will protect West Virginia courtrooms from out-of-state lawyers,” he said. “Unfortunately, that is our only real success this year.”
Stauffer said he was disheartened that the House didn’t take up the bill to create an intermediate court of appeals.
“That passed the Senate before the teacher issue heated up,” he said. “And that became the priority then.
“The creation of an intermediate court of appeals will be the top priority for us next year. The state’s economy is improving, and this issue has support. We’re slowly getting closer, and we will continue to focus on it.”
Stauffer also said his group is disappointed the seatbelt admissibility and medical monitoring bills never were considered this session.
“Again, there is support for that,” he said. “We’ll have a new House speaker next year, and we hope they’ll make it a top priority.
“We believe West Virginians strongly support this issue. A jury should hear whether an operator was wearing a seatbelt.”
The new president of a statewide group for trial attorneys said he was glad teachers were taken care of during the session.
“There were larger forces at play with teachers and their issues as compared to some of the legal issues,” said Stephen New, president of the WVAJ. “We were pleased to see the teachers get their long overdue raise and some stability in PEIA, and we understand that was the priority this session.”
Like Stauffer, New said the session didn’t have many successes for those who follow the court system.
“I think we were able to find compromise on bills that would affect our membership,” he said, noting HB 4013 and another regarding Medicaid subrogation. “We had a seat at that table working on a compromise for it.
“Obviously, we remain opposed to the intermediate court of appeals bill. We believe that it is an unnecessary waste of government money and an added layer of bureaucracy that West Virginia doesn’t need. West Virginia should be spending that on other important items.”
New said the WVAJ looks forward to taking part in continued studies on the intermediate court.
“It’s really not just an issue from a cost standpoint, but also a necessity and logistics standpoint,” he said of the plan to create a new court. “We have looked carefully at the numbers involved and at the decided cases from the West Virginia Supreme Court, the number of civil case appeals to the West Virginia Supreme Court. It’s not just based on timeliness and money. There are other considerations as well.
“A state our size does not need to add another layer of government, to be quite honest. Our Supreme Court does a really good job of hearing the administrative appeals, the workers’ comp appeals, the criminal and civil case appeals and getting written decisions in those cases.”
New said the WVAJ also will continue to oppose the seatbelt admissibility bill.
“We like the current method of deducting a percentage of damages in the event of seatbelt nonuse,” he said. “Instead of having a mini biomechanical engineering trial in every case.”
Stauffer said WV CALA supports the idea of letting voters have a say about whether the Legislature should have more control over the state judicial budget.
This fall, voters will have that state Constitutional amendment on the ballot. It became an issue following media coverage of state Supreme Court spending that included millions for renovations to the court’s offices at the state Capitol.
“West Virginia voters will have an opportunity to decide if the judicial budget should be treated like other branches,” Stauffer said. “We believe the judiciary should have the same oversight as other branches of government. So now, we’ll see how the voters feel.”
New said the WVAJ doesn't have an official position on the proposed Constitutional amendment.
“The West Virginia Association for Justice supports any legislation that improves transparency and accountability at all levels of state government,” he said. "It's important to have accountability, but the independence of the judiciary is just as important."