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IN THE SUPREME COURT OF APPEALS OF WEST VIRGINIA
September 2009 Term
HOWARD WRENN AND SANDRA BELCHER, AS NATURAL PARENTS AND
CO-ADMINISTRATORS OF THE ESTATE OF MATTHEW WRENN; AND
ANGELIA HARPER, AS NATURAL MOTHER AND ADMINISTRATOR OF
THE ESTATE OF JUSTIN JANES,
Plaintiffs Below, Appellants
THE WEST VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION,
DIVISION OF HIGHWAYS,
Defendant Below, Appellee
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Wyoming County
The Honorable John S. Hrko, Judge
Civil Action No. 08-C-93
Submitted: September 9, 2009
Filed: November 2, 2009
Mark W. Kelley, Esq. John L. MacCorkle, Esq.
Keith B. Walker, Esq. MacCorkle, Lavender, Casey &
Ray, Winton & Kelley Sweeney
Charleston, West Virginia Charleston, West Virginia
Attorneys for the Appellants Attorney for the Appellee
JUSTICE WORKMAN delivered the Opinion of the Court.
JUSTICE DAVIS dissents and reserves the right to file a dissenting opinion.
SYLLABUS BY THE COURT
1. Suits which seek no recovery from state funds, but rather allege that
recovery is sought under and up to the limits of the State's liability insurance coverage,
fall outside the traditional constitutional bar to suits against the State. Syl. Pt. 2, Pittsburgh Elevator v. West Virginia Bd. of Regents, 172 W. Va. 743, 310 S.E.2d 675
2. Where the policy language involved is exclusionary, it will be
strictly construed against the insurer in order that the purpose of providing indemnity not
be defeated. Syl. Pt. 5, Nat'l Mut. Ins. Co. v. McMahon & Sons, Inc., 177 W. Va. 734,
356 S.E.2d 488 (1987), overruled, in part, on other grounds by Potesta v. U.S. Fid. &
Guar. Co., 202 W. Va. 308, 504 S.E.2d 135 (1998).
3. Where the provisions of an insurance policy contract are clear and
unambiguous they are not subject to judicial construction or interpretation, but full effect
will be given to the plain meaning intended. Syllabus, Keffer v. Prudential Ins. Co. of
Am., 153 W. Va. 813, 172 S.E.2d 714 (1970).
4. The general rule of construction in governmental tort legislation
cases favors liability, not immunity. Syl. Pt. 2, in part, Marlin v. Bill Rich Const., Inc.,
198 W. Va. 635, 482 S.E.2d 620 (1996).
5. The Legislature has also vested in the State Board of Insurance
(Risk and Insurance Management) considerable latitude to fix the scope of coverage and
contractual exceptions to that coverage by regulation or by negotiation of the terms of
particular applicable insurance policies. Syl. Pt. 4, in part, Parkulo v. West Virginia Bd.
of Prob. and Parole, 199 W. Va. 161, 483 S.E.2d 507 (1996).
6. Recognizing the breadth of the Division of Highway's primary
functions, and the expense that would be incurred by providing insurance coverage for
every function, the coverage currently afforded by the State's liability insurance policy
meets the requirement that such coverage provide significantly broad protection.
Although the exclusions contained in Endorsement No. 7 to the State's liability insurance
policy preclude coverage of many of the Division of Highway's primary functions, the
Endorsement does not violate the laws and public policy of West Virginia.
This case is before this Court upon an appeal from a final order of the
Circuit Court of Wyoming County, West Virginia, granting a motion to dismiss filed by
the Appellee and Defendant below, the West Virginia Department of Transportation,
Division of Highways (hereinafter called DOH). In that Order, the circuit court
concluded that the DOH is entitled to sovereign immunity in this case because the plain
language of Endorsement No. 7 of the State of West Virginia's (hereinafter called the
State) liability insurance policy excludes coverage for the claims asserted by the
Appellants and Plaintiffs below, the Estates of Matthew Wrenn and Justin Janes. For the
following reasons, the Court affirms the circuit court's Order and holds that the
exemptions contained in Endorsement No. 7 do not violate West Virginia law or public
Returning from a hunting trip on the evening of November 26, 2007, two
young men, Matthew Wrenn and Justin Janes, were traveling together in a vehicle on
County Route 35/1, also known as Devil's Fork Road. As the men rounded an S curve
and started across a single-lane bridge, their vehicle dropped off the edge and overturned
in a deep impoundment of water. Both men drowned.
The Appellants, Howard Wrenn and Sandra Belcher, as natural parents and
co-administrators of the estate of Matthew Wrenn, and Angelia Harper, as natural mother
and administrator of the estate of Justin Janes, allege that numerous accidents have
occurred at this particular site on Devil's Fork Road. Indeed, another motorist had died in
a similar accident at the same bridge only months before the deaths in this case. The
Appellants state that this section of the road consists of multiple, sharp S curves, which
open into a single-lane bridge that crosses several steel culverts. They allege that, as a
result of washing out and the buildup of excess debris, a deep impoundment of water
has formed approximately fifteen feet under the bridge. They further assert that the
bridge itself has no shoulder, guardrails, warning signs, fog lines, edge lines, or other
markings to alert motorists to the danger. Moreover, no signs precede the bridge to warn
motorists of what they are approaching.
The Appellants further contend that following the previous deadly accident
on this road, local citizens contacted the DOH to request that it inspect the site and take
the steps necessary to eliminate or minimize the existing hazards. The DOH failed to
respond to these requests; indeed, one citizen had allegedly set up a meeting with a DOH
official who then failed to appear at the date and time arranged.
On April 18, 2008, the Appellants filed a complaint alleging that the
accident in question was directly and proximately caused by the DOH's negligent failure
to inspect, repair, maintain, attend to and make reasonably safe this section of Devil's
Fork Road. They further requested that, should the DOH invoke exclusions to its
insurance coverage contained in Endorsement No. 7 to its liability policy, the circuit
court declare such exclusion null and void as contravening West Virginia law and public
policy. (See footnote 1)
In lieu of filing an answer, the DOH filed a motion to dismiss under West
Virginia Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), alleging that the circuit court lacked
jurisdiction because the State is entitled to sovereign immunity. As predicted, the DOH
asserted that exclusions set forth in Endorsement No. 7 to the State's liability insurance
policy preclude coverage of the types of claims asserted in the Complaint. After
conducting oral argument, the circuit court granted the DOH's motion, finding that the
language of Endorsement No. 7 clearly and unambiguously excluded coverage of the
claims asserted and that the DOH was entitled to sovereign immunity. Accordingly, the
circuit court dismissed the Appellants' Complaint with prejudice.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Court generally reviews circuit court orders granting motions to
dismiss de novo. Syl. Pt. 2, State ex rel. McGraw v. Scott Runyan Pontiac-Buick, Inc.,
194 W. Va. 770, 461 S.E.2d 516 (1995). Moreover,'appellate courts review questions
involving principles of sovereign immunity de novo.' Blessing v. Nat'l Eng'g &
Contracting Co., 222 W. Va. 267, 269, 664 S.E.2d 152, 154 (2008) (quotingGribben v.
Kirk, 195 W. Va. 488, 493, 466 S.E.2d 147, 152 (1995)). Similarly, the appropriate
standard of review for the determination of public policy questions is also plenary. Mitchell v. Broadnax, 208 W. Va. 36, 42, 537 S.E.2d 882, 888 (2000), superseded by
statute on other grounds as stated in State ex rel. Citifinancial, Inc. v. Madden, 223 W.
Va. 229, _ n. 20, 672 S.E.2d 365, 372 n. 20 (2008). Consequently, the Court reviews
both of the issued raised in this appeal under the de novo standard.
A. Overview of West Virginia's Liability Insurance Policy
Article VI, Section 35 of the Constitution of West Virginia grants sovereign
immunity to the State. Regarding the DOH in particular, West Virginia Code § 17-4-37
(2009) specifically grants sovereign immunity for damages resulting from the defective
construction or condition of any state road or bridge.
Despite this broad immunity, the West Virginia Legislature has recognized
that the State should, in certain instances, be held liable for damages resulting from acts
undertaken, or responsibilities incurred, by its officials, agents and employees.
Accordingly, West Virginia Code § 29-12-1 to -13 (2008) requires that the State establish
and develop an adequate, economical and sound state insurance and bonding service on
all state property, activities, and responsibilities. W. Va. Code § 29-12-1.
To accomplish this goal, the Legislature established the State Board of Risk
and Insurance Management (hereinafter called BRIM), which is charged with the duty
of supervising and controlling the state insurance program, id. at § 29-12-3, and is given
significant discretion in doing so:
[BRIM] has, without limitation and in its discretion as it
seems necessary for the benefit of the insurance program,
general supervision and control over the insurance of state
property, activities and responsibilities, including:
(A) The acquisition and cancellation of state
(B) Determination of the kind or kinds of coverage;
(C) Determination of the amount or limits for each
kind of coverage;
(D) Determination of the conditions, limitations,
exclusions, endorsements, amendments and deductible forms
of insurance coverage;
(E) Inspections or examinations relating to
insurance coverage of state property, activities and
(F) Reinsurance; and
(G) Any and all matters, factors and considerations
entering into negotiations for advantageous rates on and
coverage of such state property, activities and responsibilities.
Id. at § 29-12-5(a)(1) (emphasis added). West Virginia Code § 29-12-5(a)(2) further
[BRIM] shall endeavor to secure reasonably broad protection against loss, damage or liability to state property and on
account of state activities and responsibilities by proper,
adequate, available and affordable insurance coverage and
through the introduction and employment of sound and
accepted principles of insurance, methods of protection and
principles of loss control and risk.
(Emphasis added.) Importantly, however, [t]he board is not required to provide
insurance for every state property, activity or responsibility. Id. at § 29-12-5(a)(3).
Any insurance policy purchased or contracted for by BRIM must provide
that any claims against the State arising under that policy are exempt from the
constitutional immunity otherwise afforded to the State. Id. at § 29-12-5(a)(4). In other
words, [s]uits which seek no recovery from state funds, but rather allege that recovery is
sought under and up to the limits of the State's liability insurance coverage, fall outside
the traditional constitutional bar to suits against the State. Syl. Pt. 2, Pittsburgh Elevator
v. West Virginia Bd. of Regents, 172 W. Va. 743, 310 S.E.2d 675 (1983). Nevertheless,
the State is still constitutionally immune from claims arising out of any activity or
responsibility that is not covered under its policy. W. Va. Code § 29-12-5(a)(4).
B. The Policy and Exclusions Applicable in this Case
The State's liability policy in effect at the time of the events underlying this
case, Policy No. RMGL 159-52-62 (hereinafter called the Policy), provided liability
insurance for any wrongful act of the insured. It defines wrongful act as any
actual or alleged act, breach of duty, neglect, . . . or omission by the 'insured(s)' in the
performance of their dut[ies] . . . . Policy, Coverage E, § 4. Thus, under the plain
language of the Policy, any negligence or breach of duty by the insured in the
performance of its duties would be covered. In this case, the insured includes the DOH.
Endorsement No. 7 to the Policy, however, significantly restricts the DOH's
liability for wrongful acts. It provides:
It is agreed that the insurance afforded under this policy does
not apply to any claim resulting from the ownership, design,
selection, installation, maintenance, location, supervision,
operation, construction, use, or control of streets (including
sidewalks, highways or other public thoroughfares), bridges,
tunnels, dams, culverts, storm or sanitary sewers, rights-of-
way, signs, warnings, markers, markings, guardrails, fences , or related or similar activities or things but it is agreed that
the insurance afforded under this policy does apply (1) to
claims of bodily injury or property damage which both
directly result from and occur while employees of the State of
West Virginia are physically present at the site of the incident at which the bodily injury or property damage occurred
performing construction, maintenance, repair, or cleaning (but
excluding inspection of work being performed or materials
being used by others) and (2) to claims of bodily injury or
property damage which arise out of the maintenance or
use of sidewalks which abut buildings covered by the policy.
Endorsement No. 7 to Policy No. RMGL 159-52-62 (effective July 1, 2007) (some
1. Endorsement No. 7 Excludes Coverage of the Appellants' Claims
The DOH contends that the clear language of Endorsement No. 7 limits the
State's insurance coverage to situations in which DOH employees are present at the site
of the incident from which the claim arises, and the claim results from the presence of
said employees. Put simply, coverage is excluded if no DOH employee is physically
present at the scene of the accident. Because no DOH personnel were present on Devil's
Fork Road when the accident occurred in this case, the DOH contends that Endorsement
No. 7 unambiguously excludes coverage for the asserted claims. It points out that
[w]here the provisions of an insurance policy contract are clear and unambiguous they
are not subject to judicial construction or interpretation, but full effect will be given to the
plain meaning intended. Syllabus, Keffer v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am.
, 153 W. Va. 813,
172 S.E.2d 714 (1970).
The Appellants do not disagree that for claims resulting from one of the
matters listed in Endorsement No. 7, coverage is provided only if a DOH employee is
present at the scene. Instead, they assert that, on its face, the language of Endorsement
No. 7 does not specifically exclude coverage for claims based on the DOH's failure to
inspect or failure to make reasonably safe its roads, bridges or rights-of-way. (See footnote 2)
point to the well-settled axiom that [w]here the policy language involved is
exclusionary, it will be strictly construed against the insurer in order that the purpose of
providing indemnity not be defeated. Syl. Pt. 5, Nat'l Mut. Ins. Co. v. McMahon & Sons,
177 W. Va. 734, 356 S.E.2d 488 (1987), overruled, in part, on other grounds by Potesta v. U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co.
, 202 W. Va. 308, 504 S.E.2d 135 (1998). They further
note that, [t]he general rule of construction in governmental tort legislation cases favors
liability, not immunity. Syl. Pt. 2, in part, Marlin v. Bill Rich Const., Inc.
, 198 W. Va.
635, 482 S.E.2d 620 (1996). In light of these rules of strict construction favoring liability,
the Appellants contend that Endorsement No. 7 must be limited solely to claims arising
from the matters listed therein. Because they specifically pleaded that the DOH engaged
in wrongful acts by failing to inspect and make reasonably safe the section of Devil's
Fork Road at issue, and because the failure to inspect and failure to make safe claims
are not explicitly excluded from coverage under Endorsement No. 7, the Appellants urge
this Court to find that the Policy provides coverage in this case.
Although the failure to inspect and failure to make safe are not
specifically identified among the numerous exclusions listed in Endorsement No. 7, these
claims necessarily result from, or are at least related to, the DOH's ownership of and
control over, not to mention its design, maintenance and construction of, the road, bridge,
culvert and right-of-way that constituted the site of the accident in this case. Clearly, the
DOH would have no duty to inspect any of these entities if it did not own and control
them. Similarly, it is difficult to imagine how the DOH could make safe its roads,
bridges or rights-of-way without engaging in construction or maintenance of the site, or
without installing signs, warnings, markers, markings, guardrails, [or] fences. . . .
Because all of those acts are clearly excluded from coverage, the overarching duty to
make safe logically must be excluded as well.
Thus, because Endorsement No. 7
excludes coverage for claims resulting from its ownership, control, design, construction
or maintenance of a particular road, bridge, culvert or right-of-way, as well as activities
that are related or similar to those named matters, the Appellants' claims in this action
are clearly excluded as well.
The Appellants would have the Court hold that because the terms inspect
and make safe are not explicitly included in the language of Endorsement No. 7, claims
arising from the breach of those duties are not excluded from coverage. The State,
however, cannot reasonably be expected to list every different duty or task that might
conceivably be necessary to further road, bridge or right-of-way maintenance, or that
might be appropriate only because the DOH owns, supervises, or controls a system of
roads, bridges and rights-of-way. Indeed, as the DOH argues, it should not be incumbent
upon it to provide an exhaustive list of alternative phrases and characterizations for the
exclusions expressly stated in the Endorsement. Such a holding would merely
encourage imaginatively-named claims by creative attorneys as a means to circumvent
application of the exclusionary language in every case.
Finally, while the Appellants correctly point out that long-standing
precedent in West Virginia encourages strict construction of insurance policies in favor of
Syl. Pt. 5, McMahon & Sons
, 177 W. Va. at 736, 356 S.E.2d at 490, it is
equally clear that [w]here the provisions of an insurance policy contract are clear and
unambiguous they are not subject to judicial construction or interpretation . . . . Keffer
153 W. Va. at 815-16, 172 S.E.2d at 715. Because Endorsement No. 7 is clear and
unambiguous, no construction, strict or otherwise, is required.
The conclusion that the language of Endorsement No. 7 is unambiguous
clearly comports with this Court's prior holding in Louk v. Isuzu Motors, Inc.
, 198 W. Va.
250, 479 S.E.2d 911 (1996). In Louk
, a motorist died in a vehicle accident that occurred
while she was exiting a Wal-Mart parking lot and attempting to cross a state highway. Id.
at 255, 479 S.E.2d at 916. Her estate sued the DOH and Wal-Mart arguing, among other
things, that the DOH had negligently approved the site plan without reviewing it as
required by DOH regulations, which resulted in the approval of a negligently-designed
at 256, 479 S.E.2d 917. The circuit court granted summary judgment to the
DOH, finding that the claims were barred by sovereign immunity. Id.
at 255, 479 S.E.2d
As in the instant case, the State's insurance policy in effect at the time of
the accident in Louk
covered wrongful acts by the DOH. Endorsement No. 10 to that
policy, however, provided that coverage would not apply to the:
Ownership, design, maintenance, supervision, operation, use
or control of streets, including sidewalks, highways or other
public thoroughfares, bridges, tunnels, dams, culverts, storm
or sanitary sewers, but this exclusion does not apply to bodily
injury or property damage which arises out of and occurs
during the performance of construction, street cleaning and
repair operations or arises out of the maintenance or use of
sidewalks which abut buildings covered by this policy.
198 W. Va. at 257, 479 S.E.2d at 918. On appeal, this Court concluded that the language
of Endorsement No. 10 was clear and unambiguous and [s]ince there was no
construction, maintenance, or repair work underway at the time and place of the collision,
the policy provides no coverage against the alleged wrongful acts of the DOH. Id. The
Court, therefore, affirmed the circuit court's ruling that sovereign immunity barred the
claims against the DOH. Id. Although not expressly stated in that opinion, the Court
necessarily believed that the alleged claims related to the design of the intersection at
issue and, thus, fell within the ambit of the exclusions in Endorsement No. 10.
As in Louk, the exclusionary language in this case is unambiguous with
regard to the claims raised by the Appellants. Because the claims clearly fall within the
enumerated exceptions to the Policy's coverage, and because no DOH employees were
present at the scene of the accident, the alleged wrongful acts of the DOH are excluded by
Endorsement No. 7.
Finally, the decision here is not contrary to the holding of Russell v. Bush &
Burchett, Inc., 210 W. Va. 699, 559 S.E.2d 36 (2001), in which this Court concluded that
an earlier, but nearly identical, version of Endorsement No. 7 did not exclude a claim
against the DOH for the negligent selection and training of a bridge contractor. In
Russell, the plaintiff was injured while working for a DOH contractor. Id. at 702, 559
S.E.2d at 39. He sued the contractor directly under a deliberate intent theory and sued the
DOH for negligent selection and training. Id. The DOH argued that it was immune from
suit because the endorsement in effect at that time excluded any claim resulting from the
ownership, design, selection, installation, maintenance, location, supervision, operation,
construction, use or control of . . . bridges . . . or related or similar activities or things
. . . . Id. at 704, 559 S.E.2d at 41 (emphasis added). The plaintiff responded that the
bridge-related exclusionary language contained in the endorsement did not apply to his
claim against the DOH because his theory of liability was based on negligent selection
and retention conduct by the DOH, not bridge construction, installation, etc. Id. at 705,
559 S.E.2d at 42.
Considering these arguments, the circuit court agreed with the plaintiff, and
this Court affirmed, stating:
Any negligence in the DOH's bidder selection process was separate and remote in time and place from and anterior to
any bridge construction
. While bidder selection and retention
could be arguably said to be related to bridge construction,
such a relatedness connection could also be made to the
most distant and tenuous activities.
at 706; 559 S.E.2d at 43 (emphasis added). Applying the principles of law that
narrowly construe exclusionary language, that favor liability over immunity, and that
favor state accountability, this Court concluded that the plaintiff's claim was not
categorically excluded by the exclusionary language. Id.
Thus, the Court determined
that DOH's policy provided coverage and immunity was not available to the State in that
Unlike the claims asserted in Russell
, the Appellants' claims in this case are
not separate and remote in time and place from the DOH's ownership of and control
over Devil's Fork Road. While it seems clear that the DOH should have inspected the
site of the prior accidents and taken steps to improve the safety of motorists on Devil's
Fork Road, any duty to take such steps directly
results from and is related to the DOH's
position of ownership of and control over that road, and the plain language of
Endorsement No. 7 clearly excludes such claims. (See footnote 3)
2. Endorsement No. 7 is not contrary to West Virginia law and public
The Appellants argue, in the alternative, that the language of Endorsement
No. 7 is so restrictive that it contravenes West Virginia law and public policy. While
conceding that BRIM was not required to obtain a policy that would cover all actions
taken by the State, they contend that the legislative mandate requires broader coverage
than Endorsement No. 7 permits. They assert that, in setting forth its intents and
objectives in obtaining State insurance, the Legislature provided that activities undertaken
and responsibilities incurred by the State are subject to liabilities which can and should
be covered by a sound and adequate insurance program. . . . To achieve this broad goal,
the Legislature directed BRIM to obtain an insurance policy which would provide
reasonably broad protection. W. Va. Code § 29-12-5(a)(2). The Appellants assert,
however, that Endorsement No. 7 effectively excludes the DOH from liability on
essentially all of its primary functions and, thus, does not provide coverage that is
The Appellants further note that the Court has previously, in dicta,
questioned the validity of insurance policies that do not insure a state agency against
damages resulting from the negligent performance of an agency's primary function. In Ayersman v. West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection
, 208 W. Va. 544, 542
S.E.2d 58 (2000), the Court reinstated a case against the West Virginia Department of
Environmental Protection (hereinafter called DEP) by a landowner who alleged that his
property had been flooded as the result of the DEP's negligence in a nearby mine
reclamation project. The circuit court had dismissed the case finding that the DEP was
immune from suit because no insurance policy provided liability coverage for this type of
claim. 208 W. Va. at 545-46, 542 S.E.2d at 59-60. This Court reversed because the
circuit court had failed to make adequate findings of fact and conclusions of law. Id.
547, 542 S.E.2d at 61.
While acknowledging that it was not necessary to analyze the State's
insurance policy in reaching the ultimate decision, the Court in Ayersman
noted, in footnote two, that the reclamation of abandoned mine sites is a primary function
of the DEP, and that an insurance exclusion which precluded liability for negligent
operations of a reclamation site seems particularly ill-suited for a policy written for the
DEP. 208 W. Va. at 546 n. 2, 542 S.E.2d at 60 n. 2. It thus concluded: we are
skeptical of any policy language that purports to exclude a primary function of the
The Appellants assert that the instant case raises precisely the issue
discussed in Ayersman
, because the insurance policy here excludes liability for many of
the DOH's primary functions. West Virginia Code § 17-2A-8(1) charges the
Commissioner of the DOH with, among other things, the ability to exercise general
supervision over the state road program and the construction, reconstruction, repair, and
maintenance of state roads and highways. Because liability arising from the
performance of these functions is explicitly excluded from coverage by Endorsement No.
7, the Appellants argue that the Policy fails to cover a significant number of the DOH's
Undeniably, the broad scope of Endorsement No. 7 excludes coverage for
many of the DOH's primary functions. As a consequence, the Court must carefully,
indeed skeptically, consider the restrictions in light of the Legislature's stated intention to
provide reasonably broad protection against liabilities incurred by agencies of the State.
Upon such consideration, however, this Court cannot find that Endorsement No. 7 is
contrary to the public policy of this State.
The West Virginia Legislature entrusted BRIM with significant
discretionary authority in developing and implementing the State's liability insurance
policy. While requiring that such policies provide reasonably broad protection, W. Va.
Code § 29-12-5(a)(2), and cover injuries occasioned by culpable state action, id.
§ 29-12-1, the Legislature charged BRIM with determining the conditions, limitations,
exclusions, endorsements, amendments and deductible forms of insurance coverage. Id.
at § 29-12-5(a)(1)(D). It further stated that BRIM was not required to provide insurance
for every state property, activity or responsibility. Id.
at § 29-12-5(a)(3). Thus, [t]he Legislature has also vested in [BRIM] considerable latitude to fix the scope of coverage
and contractual exceptions to that coverage by regulation or by negotiation of the terms of
particular applicable insurance policies. Syl. Pt. 4, in part, Parkulo v. West Virginia Bd.
of Prob. and Parole
, 199 W. Va. 161, 483 S.E.2d 507 (1996).
In determining the appropriate scope of the insurance coverage, BRIM was
faced with an agency that designs, constructs and maintains an extensive system of roads,
highways and bridges throughout the State. Unfortunately, accidents causing loss of
property, bodily injury, and even death occur frequently in this transportation system, as
they do nationally. Because nearly every victim of every accident on these roads,
highways and bridges could likely find some basis to sue the DOH for negligence -
whether alleging defective design of a curvy mountain road, or that the road had not been
sufficiently plowed during bad weather, or simply that a pothole should have been filled
but was not - the State would expose itself to enormous liability by covering losses
resulting from negligence in its design, construction and maintenance of this system.
Thus, although these activities may constitute primary functions of the DOH, requiring
the State to provide insurance that covers these functions would likely be unsustainable.
Consequently, in exercising its considerable latitude in determining the
conditions, limitations, exclusions, endorsements, amendments and deductible forms of
insurance coverage, W. Va. Code § 29-12-5(a)(1)(D), BRIM balanced the competing
interests in providing reasonably broad protection while ensuring the continued
financial viability of the State. In so doing, it settled on a policy covering injuries and
losses that both directly result from and occur while employees of the State of West
Virginia are physically present at the site of the incident. Endorsement No. 7. As the
DOH points out, many of its numerous employees physically work on its roads,
highways, bridges and rights-of-way, and, in emergency situations, that work continues
around-the-clock. Accordingly, significant coverage is afforded under the State's Policy,
despite the broad exclusions contained in Endorsement No. 7.
Recognizing the breadth of the Division of Highway's primary functions,
and the expense that would be incurred by providing insurance coverage for every
function, the coverage currently afforded by the State's liability insurance policy meets
the requirement that such coverage provide significantly broad protection. Although
the exclusions contained in Endorsement No. 7 to the State's liability insurance policy
preclude coverage of many of the Division of Highway's primary functions, the
Endorsement does not violate the laws and public policy of West Virginia. (See footnote 4)
In so holding, the Court acknowledges that the allegations in this lawsuit
indicate that the DOH ignored a serious hazard of which it had been specifically
informed, and, if the allegations are true, this Court does not condone the DOH's failure
to respond to the citizens' complaints. The condition complained of here is alleged to be
a one-lane road with multiple S curves which opens onto a bridge with no berm,
guardrails, edge-line markings or warning signs, and which is fifteen feet above a deep
pool of water. If this description is accurate, it presents a dangerous situation. Moreover,
because the DOH retains the sole power and authority to maintain and make safe roads
like Devil's Fork Road, West Virginians who use these roads must watch helplessly as
members of their community fall victim to known hazardous conditions.
Despite the DOH's apparent failure to protect the public by more diligent
maintenance, it is within the legislative prerogative to determine which activities must be
insured. This Court must respect the Legislature's decision to afford considerable latitude
to BRIM in determining the scope of insurance coverage for the State's public roads,
highways and bridges, and, because the Endorsement in this case comports with the
relevant statutory requirements, the State's public policy has not been violated. It is the
Legislature's and BRIM's function to decide whether to provide coverage for situations
such as the one alleged herein. This Court's function is to give full effect to the plain
meaning of a clear and unambiguous policy exclusion.
For these reasons, the final Order of the Circuit Court of Wyoming County
entered on August 15, 2008, is affirmed.
The Complaint additionally sought a declaratory judgment that Endorsement No. 7 is null
and void because it has not been signed. The Appellants subsequently waived that issue,
however, and it is not before the Court in this appeal. See Tiernan v. Charleston Area Med.
, 203 W. Va. 135, 140 n. 10, 506 S.E.2d 578, 583 n. 10 (1998) (Issues not raised
on appeal or merely mentioned in passing are deemed waived.).
The Appellants rely on West Virginia Code § 17-2A-8 (2009), entitled Powers, duties and
responsibilities of commissioner, and the Department of Highway's Maintenance Manual,
to support their position that the DOH is bestowed with the duties to inspect and make safe
the roads, bridges and rights-of-way under its control, and should, therefore, be held liable
for any breach of those duties.
The Appellants additionally rely on several circuit court decisions that sustain claims similar
to those asserted in the instant case, and thereby extend insurance coverage to incidences at
which no DOH employee was present. Those decisions hold no precedential value, however,
and are not persuasive to this Court.
The exposure that would result from insuring all of the DOH's primary functions is clearly
extensive and quite possibly unique. The holding in this case, therefore, is limited to the
DOH, and the Court does not consider whether an insurance policy excluding coverage of
any other agency's primary functions would violate public policy.