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Runyan v. Lowe's Home Centers, LLC

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 14, 2018

Christopher W. Runyan, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
Lowe's Home Centers, LLC, Defendant Below, Respondent

          Kanawha County 16-C-730


         Petitioner Christopher W. Runyan, by counsel Timothy J. Lafon and Keisha D. May, appeals the Circuit Court of Kanawha County's August 24, 2017, order granting respondent's motion for summary judgment. Respondent Lowe's Home Centers, LLC, by counsel Andrew B. Cooke and Jason A. Proctor, filed a response. On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in finding that he failed to prove the factors required to show deliberate intention pursuant to West Virginia Code § 23-4-2 and in denying his motion for a continuance.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, this Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         In February of 2016, petitioner sustained a work-related injury when he pushed a rolling ladder into a clearance bar suspended in front of an exterior door. The clearance bar was a plastic pipe suspended as a clearance warning for drivers attempting to enter or exit the door and was connected to the ceiling via chains and S-hooks. Upon colliding with the clearance bar, it fell and struck petitioner on the head, causing injuries. Petitioner received medical treatment through respondent's workers' compensation program and remained off work for several months.

         Petitioner filed an initial and amended complaint against respondent in May of 2016, generally alleging negligence. Respondent moved to dismiss the petition, arguing that it was immune from claims for work-related injuries caused by negligence and that petitioner failed to state a claim under the deliberate intention exception.[1] The circuit court permitted petitioner to file a second amended petition, which he did in September of 2016. Petitioner's second amended petition alleged that respondent had knowledge that the clearance bar was a safety hazard which it failed to correct. It incorporated a letter from Winn Forensics, which cited regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the American National Standards Institute allegedly violated by respondent.[2]

         Over the course of several months, petitioner underwent three independent medical evaluations to determine his whole person impairment resulting from the work-related incident. All of the evaluators opined that petitioner incurred zero percent whole person impairment. In July of 2017, respondent moved the circuit court to dismiss the case or, in the alternative, grant it summary judgment. Respondent argued that petitioner failed to satisfy the elements required to prove deliberate intention. A hearing on the matter was set for July 19, 2017. One day prior to the hearing, petitioner filed a response to respondent's motion, arguing that he had demonstrated the required elements for deliberate intention and, in support of his argument, attached two affidavits from former employees of respondent. A third affidavit authored by another former employee was submitted to the circuit court on the day of the hearing. The former employees stated that they, along with assistant managers, had previously observed the clearance bar in its detached state. During the hearing, petitioner moved the circuit court to grant a continuance for further discovery. However, the circuit court denied petitioner's motion and later entered an order granting respondent's motion for summary judgment, finding that petitioner failed to prove the requisite elements for deliberate intention under West Virginia Code § 23-4-2. It is from the August 24, 2017, order that petitioner appeals.

         Our standards of review for cases concerning summary judgment are well settled. "A circuit court's entry of summary judgment is reviewed de novo." Syl. Pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994). In conducting our de novo review, we apply the same standard for granting summary judgment that is applied by the circuit court. Under that standard,

"'[a] motion for summary judgment should be granted only when it is clear that there is no genuine issue of fact to be tried and inquiry concerning the facts is not desirable to clarify the application of the law.' Syllabus Point 3, Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. v. Federal Insurance Co. of New York, 148 W.Va. 160, 133 S.E.2d 770 (1963)." Syllabus Point 1, Andrick v. Town of Buckhannon, 187 W.Va. 706, 421 S.E.2d 247 (1992).

Painter, 192 W.Va. at 190, 451 S.E.2d at 756, Syl. Pt. 2. In other words,

[s]ummary judgment is appropriate where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, such as where the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of the case that it has the burden to prove.

Id. at 190, 451 S.E.2d at 756, Syl. Pt. 4. We note that "[t]he circuit court's function at the summary judgment stage is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but is to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 190, 451 S.E.2d at 756, Syl. Pt. 3. With respect to deliberate intention claims specifically, this Court has held that

a court shall dismiss a deliberate intention action "upon motion for summary judgment if it finds . . . that one or more of the facts required to be proved by the provisions of subparagraphs (A) through (E), inclusive, paragraph (ii) of this subdivision do not exist." W.Va. Code § 23-4-2(d)(iii)(B). Each of the five statutory factors "is an essential element of a 'deliberate intention' cause of action, which a plaintiff has the ultimate burden to prove. Therefore, at the summary judgment stage, if a defendant should establish that no material issue of fact is in dispute on any one of the factors, and such a finding is in favor of the defendant, summary judgment must be granted to the defendant." Mumaw v. U.S. Silica Co., 204 W.Va. 6, 11, 511 S.E.2d 117, 122 (1998). Finally, "'in order to withstand a motion for summary judgment, a plaintiff must make a prima facie showing of dispute on each of the five factors.'" Marcus v. Holley, 217 W.Va. 508, 520, 618 S.E.2d 517, 529 (2005) (citation omitted) (footnote omitted).

Smith v. Apex Pipeline Services, Inc., 230 W.Va. 620, 628, 741 S.E.2d 845, 853 (2013).

         On appeal, petitioner first argues that the circuit court erred in finding that he failed to satisfy the five elements of deliberate intention, and thus in granting respondent summary judgment. Petitioner specifically argues that he submitted sufficient evidence to prove that a state or federal safety statute, rule, or regulation was violated; that respondent had actual knowledge of a specific unsafe working condition and intentionally exposed petitioner ...

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