When a vehicle accident occurs, who is at fault? And how much should those at fault pay in damages? These are questions the House of Delegates grappled with Tuesday as they discussed abolishing joint liability and implementing comparative fault.
House Bill 2002 seeks to do away with joint liability in our state and instead introduce comparative fault. What this means is currently, before the bill, if someone is involved in an accident, and are responsible for 30% of the fault, but the other person responsible for 70% of the fault can’t pay their share, the person receiving 30% of the fault would take in all the fault.
House Bill 2002 would change this and only require the person who is 30% at fault pay 30% of their share.
The bill, while many in the House supported what it was trying to convey, many Democrats stood to offer amendments to the bill. Ranging from suggestions to offer exceptions to people who are intentionally harmed by someone to protecting children fourteen and under from taking any blame, to an economic impact statement, all of the Democrats amendments were rejected.
Republicans felt all of the additions would just muddy up the focus of the bill; to protect everyone.
During the fall election campaign, Republican candidates were clear that the state needs tort reform. Tuesday in the House, they got their chance. Delegate John Shott, chairman of the House Judiciary committee explained the party’s position.
“So one thing the leadership, or the basic thrust of leadership on both the House and the Senate side is try to identify those features of our state that are making, or creating a perception that this is not a good place to have a business, to grow jobs, to move to have a career or a profession,” said Shott, “And the legal system is one of those areas that’s been examined, and there are features of the legal system that contribute to that perception, and there’s no one that stands out, but among those features the concept of joint and several liability is one that is seen as unfair, because it creates an uncertainty among the business people, among the community, and among individuals as to the fact that you may end up having to pay more than the share of fault that you bear in an accident.”
But Delegate Tim Miley, once the House Speaker now Minority Leader, resented Shott’s assertion that the state is not business friendly.
“You know we hear a lot about the business climate of the state, perhaps someone should have shared that with the cracker plant coming, someone should have shared that with Antero that moved its corporate headquarters to north-central West Virginia, someone should have shared that with Mark West Energy who has built processing plants in north-central West Virginia and spent billions of dollars doing so. Someone should have shared that with, I think it’s Southwest Energy, a company who’s taken over the assets of Chesapeake Energy and we’re going to have a bill that benefits them up in the Energy Committee today,” said Miley, “I stand up on the floor every Thursday, and will continue to do so to talk about the jobs available in this state. Someone should have told all those business employers who have jobs available how bad it is to do business in this state. So it gets a little old justifying every effort to take rights away from consumers with the mantra, we need to make our state business friendly, when the unfriendly nature that’s been described from West Virginia has been done by these shady outside groups with no objective data to review.”
For years, West Virginia has been labeled a judicial hell hole by the American Tort Reform Association. This group accuses the state’s legal system of being out of balance. It’s a campaign the West Virginia Association for Justice, representing the state’s trial lawyers, has criticized. Shott maintains this Legislation and says its necessary to polish the state’s legal image.
“To the gentlemen from the 48th, I am exceptionally pleased that things are going well in north-central West Virginia,” said Shott, “I wish they were going as well in southern West Virginia. What we’re really looking at folks is a change in an approach, an approach that’s been underway for 83 years or so that the results, I think, speak for themselves. Our children are leaving the state, our grandchildren are leaving the state, except in north-central West Virginia where a spark, has of, discovery of the Marcellus shale, has caused a, I’ll call it a mini-boom, and our, certainly, as West Virginians are all pleased about that. But unfortunately, that’s not what we see all over our state. I sometimes ask myself, why would businesses come to West Virginia, and I think the problem now is that they won’t come unless there’s something they have to take from us that’s already here, like the Marcellus shale. If a business can go anywhere, it’s not going to come to West Virginia. It’s just not deemed a friendly place to do business.”
The bill passed 74 to 25, with some of the Democrats voting for it. House Bill 2002 now goes to the Senate for consideration.