West Virginia Record

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Justices say petitioner in appeal against State Farm over car failed to meet burden

State Supreme Court

By Kyla Asbury | Jan 29, 2020

Wvschero

CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the petitioner in an appeal in a lawsuit against State Farm failed to meet his burden.

Jeremy Brown appealed a January 2019 order granting summary judgment in favor of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.

“Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error,” the memorandum decision states. “For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court’s order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.”

The appeal stems from a single-vehicle automobile accident that occurred Oct. 23, 2015. 

At the time of the accident, Brown alleged that he was a passenger in a 2009 Ford Taurus insured by State Farm that was driven by his then-wife, Margaret Brown.

Contrary to the petitioner’s allegations, the West Virginia Uniform Traffic Crash Report indicates that he was actually the driver of the vehicle at the time of the accident.

As a result of the collision, the vehicle struck a guardrail, causing the guardrail to penetrate the cabin of the vehicle and, although the vehicle was equipped with air bags, the air bags did not deploy and the petitioner was injured when he was struck in the head by the guardrail.

State Farm took possession of the vehicle after the accident and, after inspecting the vehicle and taking pictures of it, State Farm sold the vehicle for scrap on Dec. 31, 2015.

At the time that the vehicle was sold by State Farm, Brown had not retained counsel in connection with the underlying accident and there is no evidence in the record to suggest that State Farm received a request to preserve the vehicle.

Brown filed a lawsuit against his ex-wife on Oct. 17, 2016, in Wood Circuit Court, alleging that she negligently operated the vehicle and crashed it into a roadside guardrail.

After engaging in discovery, Brown settled with his ex-wife and the Circuit Court entered a partial dismissal order for the claims against the ex-wife on Nov. 1, 2018.

Prior to the settlement with his ex-wife, Brown filed an amended complaint naming State Farm as a defendant and asserting negligent and intentional spoliation of evidence claims against State Farm related to the destruction of the vehicle.

“Petitioner did not conduct discovery as to the spoliation claims in accordance with the court’s scheduling order,” the decision states. “Instead, petitioner’s counsel alleges that he and counsel for State Farm informally agreed to stay discovery as to the spoliation claims until after the claims were resolved against Ms. Brown.”

State Farm’s counsel concedes that counsel did discuss a stay of discovery, but maintains that the parties never reached such an agreement.

State Farm filed a motion for summary judgment and the Circuit Court conducted a hearing on the motion on Dec. 11, 2018. The court then entered a judgment order granting State Farm’s motion for summary judgment the following month, to which Brown appealed.

“It is undisputed that there was no pending civil action at the time that State Farm disposed of the vehicle, therefore the Circuit Court considered petitioner’s argument that State Farm should have anticipated a potential civil action in this case because there was ‘a great deal of blood in the vehicle and the air bags allegedly did not deploy,’” the decision states.

Though Brown generally contends that the Supreme Court should presume that State Farm may have had knowledge of a “pending or potential civil action” at the time that it sold the vehicle, Brown “has not offered even a scintilla of evidence and has failed to meet his burden.”

The Supreme Court wrote that inasmuch as the Circuit Court appropriately found that Brown failed to satisfy several elements of the negligent spoliation claim that mirror the elements of his intentional spoliation claim, the Circuit Court found that this claim also fails.

“We agree and affirm the Circuit Court’s order granting summary judgment to State Farm on petitioner’s intentional spoliation claim,” the court ruled.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 19-0114

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West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals