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State ex rel. Maxxim Shared Services, LLC v. McGraw

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

November 14, 2019

STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA ex rel. MAXXIM SHARED SERVICES, LLC, a foreign Limited Liability Company, and ANR, INC., a Delaware Corporation Petitioners
v.
THE HONORABLE WARREN R. MCGRAW, JUDGE OF THE CIRCUIT COURT OF WYOMING COUNTY, WEST VIRGINIA, and CHARLES BLANKENSHIP, Respondents

          Submitted: October 15, 2019

         PETITION FOR WRIT OF PROHIBITION WRIT GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART

          Thomas P. Mannion Tim J. Yianne Tonya P. Shuler LEWIS BRISBOIS BISGAARD & SMITH LLP Charleston, West Virginia Attorneys for Petitioners

          Stephen P. New Amanda J. Taylor The Law Office of Stephen P. New Beckley, West Virginia Attorneys for Respondent

          JUSTICE JENKINS delivered the Opinion of the Court. JUSTICE WORKMAN dissents and reserves the right to file a dissenting opinion.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "A writ of prohibition will not issue to prevent a simple abuse of discretion by a trial court. It will only issue where the trial court has no jurisdiction or having such jurisdiction exceeds its legitimate powers. W.Va. Code, 53-1-1." Syllabus point 2, State ex rel. Peacher v. Sencindiver, 160 W.Va. 314, 233 S.E.2d 425 (1977).

         2. "In determining whether to entertain and issue the writ of prohibition for cases not involving an absence of jurisdiction but only where it is claimed that the lower tribunal exceeded its legitimate powers, this Court will examine five factors: (1) whether the party seeking the writ has no other adequate means, such as direct appeal, to obtain the desired relief; (2) whether the petitioner will be damaged or prejudiced in a way that is not correctable on appeal; (3) whether the lower tribunal's order is clearly erroneous as a matter of law; (4) whether the lower tribunal's order is an oft repeated error or manifests persistent disregard for either procedural or substantive law; and (5) whether the lower tribunal's order raises new and important problems or issues of law of first impression. These factors are general guidelines that serve as a useful starting point for determining whether a discretionary writ of prohibition should issue. Although all five factors need not be satisfied, it is clear that the third factor, the existence of clear error as a matter of law, should be given substantial weight." Syllabus point 4, State ex rel. Hoover v. Berger, 199 W.Va. 12, 483 S.E.2d 12 (1997).

         3. "A plaintiff's right to recover for the negligent infliction of emotional distress, after witnessing a person closely related to the plaintiff suffer critical injury or death as a result of defendant's negligent conduct, is premised upon the traditional negligence test of foreseeability. A plaintiff is required to prove under this test that his or her serious emotional distress was reasonably foreseeable, that the defendant's negligent conduct caused the victim to suffer critical injury or death, and that the plaintiff suffered serious emotional distress as a direct result of witnessing the victim's critical injury or death. In determining whether the serious emotional injury suffered by a plaintiff in a negligent infliction of emotional distress action was reasonably foreseeable to the defendant, the following factors must be evaluated: (1) whether the plaintiff was closely related to the injury victim; (2) whether the plaintiff was located at the scene of the accident and is aware that it is causing injury to the victim; (3) whether the victim is critically injured or killed; and (4) whether the plaintiff suffers serious emotional distress." Syllabus point 2, Heldreth v. Marrs, 188 W.Va. 481, 425 S.E.2d 157 (1992).

         4. In West Virginia, an employee cannot recover damages for emotional distress after witnessing an injury to an unrelated co-worker under a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress.

          OPINION

          Jenkins, Justice.

         This case was brought as a writ of prohibition under the original jurisdiction of this Court by Petitioners, Maxxim Shared Services, LLC and ANR, Inc. (collectively "Petitioners"). Respondent, Charles Blankenship ("Mr. Blankenship"), filed his complaint in June of 2018, in which he alleges that he suffered significant emotional injuries after witnessing a co-worker sustain injuries due to Petitioners' negligence. In response, Petitioners filed a motion to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure, wherein they argued that Mr. Blankenship failed to state a claim for emotional distress arising from witnessing injuries to an unrelated co-worker. Judge Warren R. McGraw, of the Circuit Court of Wyoming County, entered an order on February 28, 2019, denying the motion.

         Before this Court, Petitioners challenge the circuit court's ruling, and contend that the circuit court committed clear legal error in finding: (1) that Mr. Blankenship's relationship with his co-worker satisfied the "closely related" requirement for a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress; and (2) that Mr. Blankenship is entitled to proceed on a claim for general negligence. Having considered the briefs submitted, the appendix record, the parties' oral arguments, and the applicable legal authority, we grant the requested writ of prohibition in part, and deny in part.

         I.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In July of 2016, Mr. Blankenship was employed at an underground mine operated by Spartan Mining Company, Inc. at the Road Fork #51 mine located in Wyoming County, West Virginia. On July 28, 2016, Mr. Blankenship was directed by the mine foreman to repair the guarding at the No. 3 shaft pump installation. The next morning, Mr. Blankenship enlisted the help of his co-worker, Donald Workman ("Mr. Workman"), to assist him in repairing the loose guarding. They travelled to the shaft, and began making the repairs. While Mr. Workman was still working, Mr. Blankenship stepped away from the guarding and heard a "jet engine" sound coming from the shaft. Mr. Blankenship turned toward the shaft, and observed a methane explosion, which propelled Mr. Workman into the air. Despite attempts to assist Mr. Workman in removing his gloves and gear, Mr. Workman subsequently died as a result of his injuries.

         On June 21, 2018, Mr. Blankenship filed a complaint alleging two counts against Petitioners[1] in their capacity as entities that "oversee and manage" the subject mine: (1) negligence and (2) negligent infliction of emotional distress. Then, on August 16, 2018, Petitioners filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. Therein, Petitioners argued that Mr. Blankenship failed to state a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress arising from witnessing injuries to an unrelated co-worker. Petitioners also asserted that Mr. Blankenship's claim for negligence should be dismissed because it was a restatement of his claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, and sought recovery for duplicative damages.

         On February 28, 2019, the circuit court denied the motion to dismiss. The circuit court reasoned that "[t]o strictly require a blood or marital relation is overinclusive in that it allows recovery whether the biologically linked parties are close or not, is underinclusive in that it arbitrarily denies justice to those that can prove a functionally close relationship." The circuit court found Mr. Blankenship's complaint was sufficient and adequately pled to survive the motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. Petitioners filed this petition requesting a writ of prohibition on April 30, 2019, challenging the denial of its motion.

         II.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In Syllabus point 2 of State ex rel. Peacher v. Sencindiver, 160 W.Va. 314, 233 S.E.2d 425 (1977), we held that "[a] writ of prohibition will not issue to prevent a simple abuse of discretion by a trial court. It will only issue where the trial court has no jurisdiction or having such jurisdiction exceeds its legitimate powers. W.Va. Code, 53-1-1." Further, this Court will only grant a writ of prohibition

to correct only substantial, clear-cut, legal errors plainly in contravention of a clear statutory, constitutional, or common law mandate which may be resolved independently of any disputed facts and only in cases where there is a high probability that the trial will be completely reversed if the error is not corrected in advance.

Syl. pt. 1, in part, Hinkle v. Black, 164 W.Va. 112, 262 S.E.2d 744 (1979), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in State ex rel. Thornhill Grp., Inc. v. King, 233 W.Va. 564, 759 S.E.2d 795 (2014).

         When considering a writ of prohibition, this Court is guided by the following:

In determining whether to entertain and issue the writ of prohibition for cases not involving an absence of jurisdiction but only where it is claimed that the lower tribunal exceeded its legitimate powers, this Court will examine five factors: (1) whether the party seeking the writ has no other adequate means, such as direct appeal, to obtain the desired relief; (2) whether the petitioner will be damaged or prejudiced in a way that is not correctable on appeal; (3) whether the lower tribunal's order is clearly erroneous as a matter of law; (4) whether the lower tribunal's order is an oft repeated error or manifests persistent disregard for either procedural or substantive law; and (5) whether the lower tribunal's order raises new and important problems or issues of law of first impression. These factors are general guidelines that serve as a useful starting point for determining ...

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