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Black Bear, LLP v. Halsey

Supreme Court of West Virginia

December 12, 2016

Black Bear, LLP, Defendant Below, Petitioner
v.
Bobby G. Halsey and Janet Halsey, Plaintiffs Below, Respondents and Bobby G. Halsey and Janet Halsey, Plaintiffs Below, Petitioners
v.
Black Bear, LLP, Defendant Below, Respondent

         (Wyoming County 13-C-145)

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         These consolidated appeals[1] arise from a single circuit court case, Wyoming County No. 13-C-145, in which Plaintiffs Bobby G. Halsey and Janet Halsey brought a "deliberate intent" action pursuant to West Virginia Code § 23-4-2(d)(2)(ii)(A)-(E) (2005)[2] against Defendant Black Bear, LLP ("Black Bear"). Following a trial on the matter, a jury returned a verdict in Black Bear's favor on the ground that the Halseys failed to prove the fourth of the five elements of a deliberate intent action. Thereafter, the Halseys filed a motion to alter or amend the jury's verdict pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the Rules of Civil Procedure. By order entered December 2, 2015, the Circuit Court of Wyoming County granted the Halseys's Rule 59(e) motion, vacated the jury's verdict, and ordered a new trial.

         Defendant Black Bear, by counsel William J. Hanna, Eric T. Frye, and Jason Holliday, appeals the December 2, 2015, order (No. 16-0232), and claims that, because the jury found that the Halseys failed to prove all of the elements of a deliberate intent action, the circuit court erred in vacating the judgment order on that verdict. The Halseys, by counsel Bernard E. Layne, III and James B. Lees, Jr., also appeal the December 2, 2015, order (No. 16-0249), and argue that the circuit court should have found that they proved all five deliberate intent elements at trial, entered judgment in their favor, and limited the new trial to damages only.

         This case does not present new or significant questions of law. Moreover, the facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the relevant standards of review, the parties' briefs in both appeals, and the record on appeal, we reverse the circuit court's December 2, 2015, order that vacated the jury's verdict, and remand the case with instructions to reinstate the judgment order. In light of this decision, we also find that the Halseys's appeal is moot. A memorandum decision pursuant to Rule 21(d) of the West Virginia Rules of Appellate Procedure is appropriate for these consolidated appeals given that the "limited circumstances" requirement is satisfied.

         Factual and Procedural Background

          In 2012, Plaintiff Bobby G. Halsey (the "plaintiff") was a maintenance worker at Defendant Black Bear's coal preparation plant in Wyoming County. At the plant, the plaintiff was tasked with welding, fabricating, pipe replacement, and cleaning. The plaintiff worked with David "Dewey" Conley, the plaintiff's supervisor; Plant Superintendent Randy Hatfield; and Damon England, another plant supervisor. The evidence in the record on appeal indicates that these men were considered a "very experienced crew" who "knew their jobs well[.]"

         On May 6, 2012, the plaintiff was assigned to participate in the repair of the plant's Heavy Media Distribution Box (hereinafter "HMDB"), which had been leaking. To effectuate that repair, a fourteen-inch pipe and a six-inch pipe, which came down from the ceiling onto the top of the HMDB, had to be cut. Plant Superintendent Hatfield assigned this repair task to the plaintiff, Supervisor Conley, and Supervisor England. Superintendent Hatfield also asked Jeff Roberts, who worked on the night shift prior to the plaintiff's day shift, to begin work on the pipes.

         During the night shift, Mr. Roberts completely cut through the base of the fourteen-inch pipe; therefore, that pipe[3] was no longer supported by the HMDB, but, instead, was supported only by a connecting clamp. Mr. Roberts also cut through part of the six-inch pipe before his shift ended. During the day shift, the plaintiff and Mr. Conley were instructed to continue the work on the pipes. However, given their knowledge and experience, they were not instructed on how to do that work. The plaintiff "tied up" the six-inch pipe prior to working on it. He then informed Supervisor Conley that the fourteen-inch pipe needed to be secured. Thereafter, Mr. Conley left the immediate area to retrieve a ladder and the "come-alongs" necessary to tie up the fourteen-inch pipe. While Mr. Conley was gone, the plaintiff stood directly underneath the fourteen-inch pipe and apparently placed his hand on it in an effort to measure it. At that point, the pipe came loose from the connecting clamp and fell onto the plaintiff. As a result, the plaintiff was seriously injured and permanently disabled.

         Thereafter, the plaintiff and his wife filed the instant deliberate intent action pursuant to West Virginia Code § 23-4-2(d)(2)(ii) (2005).

         The trial in this matter commenced on August 24, 2015. During the Halseys's case-in-chief, the plaintiff testified (1) that neither Supervisor Conley nor Supervisor English instructed him on how to accomplish the task of removing the pipes; (2) that he tied up the six-inch pipe before working on it and then turned to work on the fourteen-inch pipe; (3) that it was not necessary to stand under the fourteen-inch pipe while it was being tied up; (4) that he was not directed to stand underneath the fourteen-inch pipe; (5) that, when he stood under the fourteen-inch pipe, he knew it had not yet been tied up and that Supervisor Conley was retrieving a ladder and the come-alongs to tie up the pipe; and (6) that he stood under the pipe to begin working on it because he was "just trying to save time."

         At the end of the Halseys's case-in-chief, the circuit court denied Black Bear's motion for judgment as a matter of law. Black Bear then rested its case without calling any witnesses, but renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law. The circuit court again denied that motion.

         On closing, the Halseys's counsel told the jury that it was not to consider any of the plaintiff's actions on the day of the accident. The circuit court then instructed the jury that Black Bear "may not assert [the plaintiff's] conduct as a defense." The circuit court also instructed the jury regarding the five statutory elements of a deliberate intent action. See n. 2.

         The case was submitted to the jury on August 26, 2015, along with a verdict form that contained five special interrogatories that tracked each of the five statutory elements of West Virginia Code § 23-4-2(d)(2)(ii)(A)-(E) (2005). The jury was instructed to answer each special interrogatory in the affirmative or in the negative-that is, in the affirmative if the Halseys met the burden of proof regarding the statutory element, or in the negative if the Halseys did not meet the burden of proof regarding the statutory element. Interrogatory (4) on the verdict form, which is at issue in this appeal, read as follows: "Do you find it more likely than not that [Black Bear] nevertheless intentionally exposed [the plaintiff] to the specific unsafe working condition?" (Emphasis added.) During its deliberations, the jury sent the following question to the circuit court regarding Interrogatory (4): "Is the wording concerning the use of the word 'intentionally' mandatory? Meaning, do we have to consider it in the question? Is it permissible to leave it out?" With the agreement of counsel, the circuit court advised the jurors that they "must answer the question as posed in the special interrogatories, in the verdict form together with the instructions given by the Court."

         The next day, following six hours of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Black Bear. On the verdict form, the jury answered the questions regarding the first three elements, West Virginia Code § 23-4-2(d)(2)(ii)(A)-(C), in the affirmative and, therefore, found that the Halseys proved each.[4] However, the jury answered the interrogatory regarding the fourth element, West Virginia Code § 23-4-2(d)(2)(ii)(D), in the negative and, therefore, found that the Halseys failed to prove that Black Bear intentionally exposed the plaintiff to the specific unsafe working condition.[5]

         The circuit court entered its "Order of Entry of Judgment on Jury Verdict" (the "judgment order") on September 17, 2015, which reflected the jury's verdict in favor of Black Bear.

         On September 24, 2015, the Halseys filed a motion to alter or amend the jury's verdict pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. Specifically, the Halseys asked the circuit court to vacate the judgment order, to grant judgment in their favor, and to order a new trial on damages only. In the alternative, the Halseys moved for a new trial on all matters pursuant to Rule 59(a) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. In support of their motion, the Halseys argued that there was no evidence to support the jury's finding that the plaintiff was not intentionally exposed to the specific unsafe working condition. The Halseys also argued that once the jury found that the Halseys had proved the first three elements of the deliberate intent statute, West Virginia Code § 23-4-2(d)(2)(ii)(A)-(C), they were required to find, as a matter of law, that they had proved the fourth element as well, West Virginia Code § 23-4-2(d)(2)(ii)(D). On November 23, 2015, Black Bear objected to the Halseys's Rule 59(e) motion.

         Following a hearing, the circuit court, by order entered December 2, 2015, granted the Halseys's motion, vacated the judgment order, and ordered a new trial on all matters. In rendering its decision, the circuit court relied primarily on the following excerpt from Superintendent Hatfield's testimony at trial, during which Superintendent Hatfield testified, in essence, that-in hindsight-the plaintiff was sent to a hazardous worksite which posed a significant risk of injury.

PLAINTIFFS'S COUNSEL: So you've got a 3[00] to 400-pound piece of this machinery hanging there from a Morris coupling, just dangling there, basically hanging from a band aid, correct?
MR. HATFIELD: Yes, sir.
PLAINTIFFS'S COUNSEL: That's not a very good worksite to send a ...

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