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W.Va. Houses passes bill altering civil verdict liability

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia House of Delegates took on tort reform during Tuesday’s legislative session by passing a bill that establishes a comparative fault standard and implements what is known as several liability.

The bill mandates that defendants are only responsible for their share of damages caused to a victim in cases of wrongdoing.

Prior to this legislation, in cases with multiple defendants, joint liability established that all defendants were responsible for paying damages. That means if one defendant filed for bankruptcy and could not pay, the other defendants in the claim would be required to take on the additional damages.

Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, who co-sponsored the bill, said the bill is an effort to correct inequities in West Virginia law.

“I think under our justice system, it just seems to be a basic tenet that an individual should not be required to pay for someone else’s damages,” Espinosa said.

While the bill was established to abolish joint liability, there are three exemptions the caucus held to remain in effect.

Those exemptions are: if a defendant is driving a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance, a defendant whose actions constitute criminal conduct or a defendant whose actions constitute an illegal disposal of hazardous wastes.

Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, who opposed the bill, requested a fourth exemption that was rejected.

“I offered an amendment to make sure that children were exempted from the harsh results of this bill. I’m disappointed that the amendment was not adopted,” Skinner said.

In addition to offering an amendment, Skinner expressed his concerns about HB 2002.

“Two things are going to happen. The people who get hurt are not going to be able to get justice and all of their bills are going to have to be paid by the taxpayer when they have to return to Medicaid to pay for their care. So this is really moving the costs of a wrongdoer’s harm onto the victim and the public,” Skinner said.

However, Espinosa said, the bill is not meant to make it more difficult for victims.

“Certainly that’s not the intent, to harm victims. If there are damages against a victim, certainly I feel very strongly that our courts will assist them in being able to recover those damages,” Espinosa said.

This bill marks the first of many pieces of legislation West Virginia can expect to see this year on tort reform.

Espinosa said this bill was one of the first steps to benefiting the state as a whole.

“It kind of moves West Virginia more into the mainstream,” Espinosa said. “Our hope in addressing this inequity in our legal system and other inequities is to improve our overall legal climb in the state so hopefully individuals and businesses will feel comfortable wanting to locate here.”

This piece of legislation was the fourth bill passed by the House of Delegates in the 2015 legislature. A majority of 74-25 voted to pass the bill, which now moves to the Senate.

Other local lawmakers from the Eastern Panhandle who co-sponsored HB 2002 included Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley, and Delegate Michael Folk, R-Berkeley.

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