Robert T. Fitzsimmons
Michael R. Crane
Joseph J. John Forman & Crane
Wheeling, West Virginia Charleston, West Virginia
Attorneys for the Petitioner M. E. Mike Mowery
Jennifer Bailey Walker
Charleston, West Virginia
Attorneys for the Respondents
Anthony G. Halkias
Charleston, West Virginia
Attorney for the Intervenor
The Opinion of the Court was delivered PER CURIAM.
CHIEF JUSTICE McGRAW dissents and reserves the right to file a dissenting opinion.
3. 'To entitle one to a writ of mandamus, the party seeking the writ must
show a clear legal right thereto and a corresponding duty on the respondent to perform the
act demanded.' Syl. Pt. 2, State ex rel. Cooke v. Jarrell, 154 W.Va. 542, 177 S.E.2d 214
(1970). Syl. Pt. 1, Dadisman v. Moore, 181 W.Va. 779, 384 S.E.2d 816 (1988).
Petitioner Patricia E. McLaughlin, by committee, requests that this Court issue a writ of mandamus directing the Respondent Court of Claims to re-docket her claim for its consideration and requiring the Court of Claims to apply the doctrines of res judicata or collateral estoppel to give effect to a jury verdict of the Circuit Court of Marshall County, returned in her favor against the West Virginia Department of Transportation, Division of Highways (DOT).See footnote 1 1 Upon our review of the record in conjunction with established principles of law, we find no basis for issuing the relief requested by Petitioner.
A year after filing her civil complaint, Petitioner filed a Suggested Form of
Notice of Claim and Claim in the Court of Claims,See footnote 4
to which she attached a copy of the
complaint filed in circuit court. Her claim was docketed by the Court of Claims, but stayed
pending the disposition of the circuit court action.
On October 25, 1993, this matter proceeded to
trial on the issue of liability
alone. Although the jury returned a verdict of no liability with regard to DOT, the circuit
court entered a judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of Petitioner as to liability
against DOT.See footnote 5
As a result of settlement negotiations that ensued between January and June
of 1994, DOT tendered one million dollars to the circuit court on August 30, 1994
to Rule 68 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure.See footnote 6
Based on its position that it had
tendered payment of the one million dollar limits of the State's insurance policy, DOT
petitioned this Court for a writ of prohibition to prevent the trial court from proceeding to the
damage portion of the trial. We denied DOT's request in
State ex rel. West Virginia DOT
v. Madden, 192 W.Va. 497, 453 S.E.2d 331 (1994), upon our determination that a final
determination by the trial court as to the limits of insurance coverage available in this case
is necessary. Id. at 500, 453 S.E.2d at 334. The issue of the amount of insurance coverage
available was not resolved until the Kanawha County Circuit CourtSee footnote 7
issued an order, entered
on September 14, 2000, finding only one million dollars of coverage.See footnote 8
On August 30, 1994
, a six-person jury heard the evidence and returned a
verdict on the issue of damages. The jury assessed damages in the amount of 16.5 million
dollars and the circuit court, by judgment order entered on March 30, 1995, reduced the
verdict to the one million dollar offer of judgment that had already been tendered by DOT.
In March 1996, Petitioner sought to have the circuit court verdict given res
judicata effect by the Court of Claims. In response, DOT filed a motion to dismiss the Court
of Claims proceeding on grounds of lack of subject matter jurisdiction.See footnote 9
argument on the motion to dismiss, the Court of Claims dismissed Petitioner's claim on
February 20, 1997, upon its conclusion that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the claim. Petitioner
sought reconsideration of the decision to dismiss her Court of Claims action in October 2000,
but in a letter dated October 20, 2000, the Court of Claims declined, stating that
is and has been dismissed from the docket of the Court by its former order.
seeks the issuance of a writ of mandamus from this Court to have her claim re-docketed with
the Court of Claims.
The Court of Claims is an administrative arm of the West Virginia Legislature,
not a court created within the judicial branch of government. The Legislature has established
the Court of Claims by lawSee footnote 11
and delegated to it the Legislature's power to investigate certain
claims against the State that may not be prosecuted in the courts because of the State's
sovereign immunity.See footnote 12
See W.Va. Code § 14-2-1 (1967) (Repl.Vol.2000). The Court of
Claims is also charged by law with the duty of recommending payment of such of those
claims as it finds worthy, in specified amounts, to be paid by specific appropriations
designated by the Legislature for payment of claims against the State, which it recognizes as
a moral obligation of the State notwithstanding the immunity of the State from suit in its
various courts. See Syl. Pt. 3, State ex rel. C & D Equip. Co. v. Gainer, 154 W.Va. 83, 174
S.E.2d 729 (1970) (holding that [o]nly the legislature can authorize such payments [when
sovereign immunity exits] if and when they are found and declared by it to be moral
obligations of the State, and specific appropriations made for payment thereof).
the Court of Claims is a public body created by law, a writ of mandamus may issue against
this body, in the same fashion as it issues against any other public officer or body to which
the Legislature has delegated its powers.See footnote 13
The issue that remains is whether the re-docketing of Petitioner's claim is a mandatory, non-delegable duty of the Court of Claims. Section 14 of the Court of Claims legislation reads as follows:
The jurisdiction of the court shall not extend to any claim:
1. For loss, damage, or destruction of property or for injury or death incurred by a member of the militia or national guard when in the service of the State.
2. For a disability or death benefit under chapter twenty-three [§ 23-1-1 et seq.] of this Code.
3. For unemployment compensation under chapter twenty-one-A [§ 21A-1-1 et seq.] of this Code.
4. For relief or public assistance under chapter nine [§ 9-1-1 et seq.] of this Code.
5. With respect to which a proceeding may be maintained against the State, by or on behalf of the claimant in the courts of the State.
W.Va. Code § 14-2-14 (1967) (Repl.Vol.2000).
Given the very serious nature of Petitioner's injuries, as reflected by the record and the jury's large verdict, and given the fact that there was but one tortfeasor found at fault in the Marshall County action related to those injuries, it is more than understandable that the Petitioner in this case would seek a remedy from the Legislature in excess of the limited amount of insurance available to her. It is difficult for this Court to imagine a situation more deserving of the Legislature's careful consideration in light of its jurisdictional mandate to consider claims which the State should in equity and good conscience discharge and pay. W.Va. Code § 14-2-13(1) (1967) (Repl.Vol.2000). We are, however, constrained to carefully respect the separation of powers set forth in our State's Constitution See footnote 14 14 and leave to the Legislature the consideration of that claim without inappropriate interference from either of the other branches of the government. Our sole inquiry is whether the Legislature has imposed on its Court of Claims a mandatory, non-delegable duty to re-docket Petitioner's claim. As noted, only the Legislature can authorize the payment of claims exempt from judicial consideration by virtue of principles of sovereign immunity. See Gainer, 154 W.Va. at 84, 174 S.E.2d at 730, syl. pt. 3.
Turning to the provisions of West Virginia Code § 14-2-14(5), upon which the
Court of Claims relied in dismissing Petitioner's claim, we are compelled to apply this
provision as written
based on our conclusion that it is clear and free of ambiguity. See
Pt. 2, Crockett v. Andrews, 153 W. Va. 714, 172 S.E.2d 384 (1970) (stating that [w]here the
language of a statute is free from ambiguity, its plain meaning is to be accepted and applied
without resort to interpretation).
Under section 14, the Legislature has withheld from the
Court of Claims the power to consider any claim . . . [w]ith respect to which a proceeding
may be maintained against the State, by or on behalf of the claimant in the courts of the
State. W.Va. Code § 14-2-14(5). Petitioner argues that since she may not maintain a claim
in excess of one million dollars in the courts, her claim for recovery in excess of one million
dollars--seen by the Petitioner as the difference between the jury verdict and the insurance
paid--may be maintained in the Court of Claims. We think the legislative decision to
withhold certain claims from consideration by the Court of Claims, as delineated in section
14 of the Court of Claims legislation
, is intended to be applied in a broader fashion than that
suggested by Petitioner.
Petitioner's claim was for the negligence of the State in maintaining its
highways during construction;
this negligence was determined to be the proximate cause of
Petitioner's injuries for which the Marshall County jury
awarded more than sixteen million
dollars in damages. Petitioner was permitted to, and did in fact, maintain a proceeding
against the State in the Circuit Court of Marshall County with respect to her claim up to the
amount of the state's insurance. Accordingly, the relevant statute clearly states that the
jurisdiction of the Court of Claims does not extend to that claim.See footnote 15
W.Va. Code § 14-2-
Nothing in this opinion should be construed to discourage the Legislature from
carefully examining this and other similar claims, notwithstanding current procedures for
handling matters before the Court of Claims. We have dealt here solely with the issue
presented: the extent of the non-delegable, non-discretionary duty of the Court of Claims in
the circumstances presented to us.See footnote 16
We leave to the Legislature the resolution of this and
other like claims.
For the reasons stated, we deny Petitioner's request for a writ of mandamus.
The legislative, executive and judicial departments shall
be separate and distinct, so that neither shall exercise the powers
properly belonging to either of the others; nor shall any person
exercise the powers of more than one of them at the same time,
except that justices of the peace shall be eligible to the
W.Va. Const. art. V, § 1.