By Conor Griffith
March 6, 2019 - West Virginia University law students and the general public got the chance to see the state Supreme Court in action Tuesday morning as verbal arguments in three cases were heard on campus.
Justice John A. Hutchison, the newest justice on the court, said this was his first time hearing arguments at the WVU Law School but that he was nonetheless excited and enjoyed conversing with the law students who mingled with the justices before court came to order.
“What I hope is the students come out of this with a better understanding of how the system works and to show that the Supreme Court is not as scary as some people might think,” he said.
Hutchison added that the three cases heard were chosen specifically by the court clerk in order to give a well-rounded presentation of cases the students might face in their careers. The selection of lawyers in each case also reflected this desire, he said.
The first case argued before the justices was Heather Humphrey v Westchester Limited Partnership. This case concerned the 2014 hit and run that resulted in the death of Raymond Michael, who was struck by a vehicle in Fairmont operated by Cole Valentine. Valentine was operating the vehicle on behalf of Carrie Bragg, who entrusted him with her vehicle after being served alcohol underage at a party held at the Westchester Village development.
Stephen New, representing the plaintiffs, was before the Supreme Court to appeal an order from the Marion County Circuit Court granting summary judgement in favor of Westchester Village and for another civil trial. He argued that Westchester should be held liable, having served alcohol to someone who was underage and setting in motion events that led to Raymond’s death.
However, Heather Noel, representing Westchester Village, questioned how far one can go in setting foreseeable circumstances and that the complex serving alcohol didn’t necessarily contribute to the later fatality. She noted that Bragg made her way to another bar before asking Cole to drive her home in her car, which brings into question Westchester’s guilt beyond serving alcohol underage.
“Where do you draw that line?” Noel asked. “What if Miss Bragg went home, made a grilled cheese sandwich and left the stove on? Is Westchester going to be held responsible for that?”
In rebuttals, New stated that Valentine, who met Bragg at the Gold Rush Bar and Grill, was also underage at the time. New said there were conflicting stories among Valentine and his friends, and since he fled after striking Raymond, it’s hard to know what state he was in and if he should’ve been driving. New also pointed out the distance between Westchester Village and Gold Rush that Bragg would’ve had to travel beforehand.
The second case heard by the justices, Certegy Check Services Inc. v Janice Fuller, was a motion to compel arbitration case that involved the payment of a hotel bill with convenience checks and subsequent letters and calls from a collection agency, which lawyers representing Fuller say engaged in misrepresentation to collect a debt.
The final case was Michael D. Michael, Administrator, et al. v Consolidation Coal Co., the plaintiffs of which are survivors of 78 coal miners killed in an explosion at the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington in 1968.
Their lawyer, Scott Segal, argued that the names of certain individuals involved in the disaster were fraudulently concealed by Consol Energy, which prevented relatives from filing a wrongful death claim in a timely manner.
Representing Consol Energy was W. Henry Jernigan, who argued that the plaintiffs did have access to the information needed, but waited for years before making the claim.
“At best, we stood silent,” he said, “and I see no ‘duty’ imposed on Consol to come forward.”
After hearing all arguments and rebuttals, the court agreed to accept all three cases for further review.
WVU Law School Dean Gregory Bowman said the visit was a fantastic opportunity for visitors and students to meet the justices and see the court at work.
“Our Supreme Court comes to the law school every year,” he said. “Not every state has a Supreme Court that does this, so we’re very fortunate.”