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Brown v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

January 13, 2020

Jeremy Brown, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, Defendant Below, Respondent

          Wood County 16-C-432


         Petitioner Jeremy Brown, by counsel Brian J. Headley, appeals the Circuit Court of Wood County's January 9, 2019, order granting summary judgment in favor of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company ("State Farm"). Respondent State Farm, by counsel R. Carter Elkins, filed a response, and petitioner filed a reply.

         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, the 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.

         This appeal stems from a single vehicle automobile accident that occurred on October 23, 2015. At the time of the accident, petitioner alleges that he was a passenger in a 2009 Ford Taurus, insured by State Farm, that was being driven by his then-wife, Margaret Brown (hereinafter "Ms. Brown"). Contrary to 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.[1] As a result of the collision, the vehicle struck a guardrail, causing the guardrail to penetrate the cabin of the vehicle. Although the vehicle was equipped with air bags, the air bags did not deploy and petitioner was injured when he was struck in the head by the guardrail.

         Respondent State Farm took possession of the vehicle after the accident. After inspecting the vehicle and taking pictures of it, State Farm sold the vehicle for scrap on or about December 31, 2015. At the time that the vehicle was sold by State Farm, petitioner 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. To the contrary, the record reflects that petitioner placed State Farm on notice of the claim after the vehicle was no longer in State Farm's possession.

         On October 17, 2016, petitioner filed suit against Ms. Brown in the Circuit Court of Wood County.[2] In his complaint, petitioner alleged that Ms. Brown negligently operated the vehicle and crashed it into a roadside guardrail. After engaging in discovery, petitioner settled with Ms. Brown. The circuit court entered a partial dismissal order for the claims against Ms. Brown on November 1, 2018.

         Prior to the settlement with Ms. Brown, petitioner 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. 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. Notably, counsel did not submit any joint motions or proposed orders to stay discovery or to vacate the scheduling order.

         Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment and the circuit court conducted a hearing on the motion on December 11, 2018. The circuit court found that petitioner was unable to establish the required elements for his negligent spoliation or intentional spoliation claims. Thus, the circuit court entered a January 9, 2019, Judgment Order granting State Farm's motion for summary judgment. This appeal followed.

         On appeal, this Court accords a plenary review to the circuit court's order granting summary judgment: "[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 Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Fed. Ins. 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. Additionally, 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 it is to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 190, 451 S.E.2d at 756, syl. pt. 3. Finally, we note that "the party opposing summary judgment must satisfy the burden of proof by offering more than a mere 'scintilla of evidence' and must produce evidence sufficient for a reasonable jury to find in a nonmoving party's favor. Anderson [v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.], 477 U.S. [242] at 252, 106 S.Ct. [2505] at 2512, 91 L.E.2d [202] at 214 [1986]." Williams v. Precision Coil, Inc., 194 W.Va. 52, 60, 459 S.E.2d 329, 337 (1995).

         In Syl. Pt. 2, in part, Hannah v. Heeter, 213 W.Va. 704, 584 S.E.2d 560 (2003), this Court spelled out the elements ...

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