For the second time, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia has reversed the $50 million verdict awarded to Hugh Caperton and his companies against A. T. Massey Coal Company, Inc. and its subsidiaries. Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Company, Inc., No. 33350 (The Westlaw opinion is not available yet, so the link is to the PDF version of the opinion, which was released yesterday afternoon, from the Court’s website).
The majority opinion for the 3-2 decision was written by Justice Robin Davis, who also wrote the majority opinion in the first appeal, which was vacated when the Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for rehearing. Justice Brent Benjamin, who refused to recuse himself, and became acting Chief Justice in the case when Chief Justice Elliott E. "Spike" Maynard recused himself, was also in the majority, as was Marion County Circuit Judge Fred L. Fox, II, who was appointed to replace Justice Larry Starcher, who recused himself.
Justice Joseph Albright dissented, as he did in the first appeal, and was joined by Hampshire County Circuit Judge Donald H. Cookman, who was appointed to replace Chief Justice Maynard. Here is their dissent, which is the PDF version from the Court’s website.
I have not had an opportunity to study either opinion very closely, but here are a couple of preliminary observations. The majority opinion is substantially longer than in the first appeal, which may be attributable to the Court’s elaboration on the two grounds for reversal that it identified in the first appeal: first, that the circuit court should have granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss based on a forum selection clause in a contract entered into in Virginia, and second,, assuming that the ruling on the motion was not erroneous, the doctrine of res judicata barred the West Virginia action based on an action that had been litigated in Virginia. (Even though the earlier opinion had been vacated, the parties addressed the grounds for reversal set forth in that opinion.)
In the first appeal, the Court wrote that, “At the outset we wish to make perfectly clear that the facts of this case demonstrate that Massey’s conduct warranted the type of judgment rendered in this case." That statement seemed out of place, considering that the Court reversed the verdict against Massey, notwithstanding its conduct.
That statement is missing from the majority opinion this time, which is not lost on the dissent:
Today’s "new" opinion of the Court rests on the same indefensible legal grounds as the original opinion — supplemented by even more extended discussion of some of the points — but, strangely, omitting the clearly correct assertion in the original majority opinion that "Massey’s conduct warranted the type of judgment rendered in this case." Id. This time the majority stands silent regarding any disdain of Massey’s conduct. Once again, it bends the law to deny Plaintiffs the proper "result that clearly appears to be justified." Id.
Emphasis in original.
I think that this decision will generate an enormous amount of attention, both for the merits of the opinion, but particularly because Chief Justice Maynard and Justice Starcher recused themselves, and Justice Benjamin, who was in the majority in both appeals, did not.