Keeping W.Va. law equitable

An editorial from The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING, W.Va. — Most West Virginians do not worry much about “joint and several liability.” It is part of the jargon of lawyers and judges that, to the layman, can seem impenetrable.

But think of the idea this way: Assume the water pipes in your house and a neighbor’s freeze and burst. The resulting flood of water, about 2,000 gallons from each residence, destroys the beautiful basement recreation room in another home. The owner sues. You and the first neighbor lose.

So each of you is ordered to pay half the damages, right?

Not necessarily. Under current state law, a court could order you to pay the whole bill. Is that fair?

Of course not.

Such potential treatment in court is one of many aspects of the Mountain State’s court system that discourage some businesses from coming here to create jobs. Why build a factory in a state where, in a big lawsuit, you could be ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages for which someone else, not you, is responsible?

Many trial lawyers love the system. It allows them to maximize what they collect in lawsuits, both for themselves and clients.

Again, however, the concept is unfair and not good for the West Virginia’s economy. That hurts all of us.

Members of the state House of Delegates approved a bill (HB 2002) this week to restore fairness to the process. In essence, it requires that in most situations, those found liable in lawsuits can be ordered to pay only those damages for which they are responsible.

There are important exceptions in the bill. Those whose liability is due to criminal actions are not included. Neither are those who “conspire and deliberately pursue a common plan” that results in someone being harmed.

Advocates of the current system have accused Republicans, who now hold majorities in both houses of the Legislature, of planning to gut state law’s protections for people hurt by big businesses.

But the House vote, 74-25, was a demonstration an overwhelming majority of delegates – including several Democrats – understand the change is needed.

Senators should follow the House lead and approve the bill, and then Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin should sign it.

Again, the change should make our state more attractive to job-creating businesses. But even without that, thoughtful West Virginians will recognize a compelling argument in its favor – simple fairness.

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