West Virginia Wrongful Death Lawsuits Rejected Due to Failure of Victims’ Loved Ones to File Claims Quickly
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, in a decision concerning an appeal emanating from the Ohio County Circuity Court in West Virginia, has held that the Werner Enterprises, a Nebraska-based trucking company, was not engaged in illegal spoliation of evidence as part of an ongoing wrongful death lawsuit. Incredibly, even the trial courts in Ohio County were noted in the court’s record as describing the disposal of a semi-tractor trailer vehicle involved in a two-employee death accident by the company as “highly unusual.” For the estates of both Kenneth Williams and Quentin Rutledge, who both died as the result of a work-related accident on a snowy bridge while operating a semi-tractor trailer on January 11, 2009 near Jane Lew, West Virginia, the legal process towards recovery was complicated by two factors, including the inability to corroborate their claims in light of a complete dearth of evidence and a relatively strict interpretation of what West Virginia law now considers “spoliation” in civil claims.
The case, which began in the summer of 2011, initially involved claims filed by the estates of both Williams and Rutledge, with Heavens Law serving as counsel for one of the plaintiffs. Initially, both estates ultimately brought a number of claims against both the manufacturers of the tractor-trailer, Freightliner Corporation, as well as Werner Enterprises, the former employer of both victims. Complicated by the fact that one of the basic claims involved in this West Virginia trucking accident case that caused the deaths of two employees is the fact that Werner Enterprises elected to clear the scene of the accident, while disposing of the vehicle to a landfill within two (2) days of the fatal accident. Both of the victim’s estates challenged this decision and action by the company in their claims initially commencing filing only 29 days after the wrongful death accident occurred. However, in the decision of the Circuit Court in Ohio County, all plaintiff claims were dismissed and uncontested by the plaintiffs, save for the cause of action against Werner Enterprises concerning the alleged intentional spoliation of evidence. Plaintiffs used these grounds to appeal the dismissal of the partial summary judgment from the trial courts in Ohio County to the Supreme Court of Appeals for the state of West Virginia.
Under West Virginia civil statutes, intentional spoliation of evidence in civil, tort, or contract cases involves the intentional manipulation, destruction, erasure, or concealment of evidence with the intent to impede another party’s intent to bring or move forth with an already filed lawsuit. Against the interest of the estates of the plaintiffs, the estates alleged that destruction of all closely and tangentially related evidence was tantamount to intentional spoliation, however, the Court of Appeals ultimately upheld the earlier decision from the lower trial courts. In its decision, the Court of Appeals noted that the estate’s claims against Werner were invalid due to the fact that Werner did not know or receive word from the estate concerning its intention or desire to potentially file suit. Had this occurred, the evidence destroyed after forty-eight (48) hours would have been subject to viable tort claims for spoliation.
For those considering filing negligence-related claims, or those having recently suffered injuries sustained in a negligence-related accident, it is imperative to involve legal counsel at a minimal level from the outset of any event that may potentially lead to a lawsuit filing in the future. If not done, as seen in this recent West Virginia double wrongful death case, otherwise reasonable claims by victim’s estates can be complicated, if not lost entirely, without an immediate and informed amount of legal advice from a practicing negligence law attorney in Virginia.