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State Supreme Court backs lower courts in truck accident case

When someone is injured in a motor vehicle accident in West Virginia, the person has the right to take legal action against any party held negligent for the accident. The same goes for surviving family members of anyone killed in an accident. Unfortunately, the guarantee that a civil case can be filed does not necessarily mean a plaintiff will always be successful. When evidence is no longer available, a plaintiff will have an uphill legal battle.

This issue was recently emphasized when the West Virginia state Supreme Court upheld two lower-court rulings that a defendant in a truck accident case did not intentionally destroy evidence from a 2009 accident. Without evidence, wrongful death lawsuits could not proceed.

In January 2009, two truck drivers working for Werner Enterprises were killed in an accident on Interstate 79. A few hours later, a claims adjuster hired by Werner told the company the accident was the result of bad weather rather than negligence and that the company would have to pay workers' compensation death benefits to the men's families. The adjuster noted that the cargo was not completely destroyed but was not necessarily salvageable. Less than two days later, Werner officials agreed the cargo wreckage was beyond recovery and ordered it removed and disposed of in a landfill.

A month later, the attorney for one trucker's widow requested the wreckage be preserved as evidence for possible litigation. The attorney was shortly told that the wreckage had already been removed and disposed of.

In December 2009, the two widows filed suit against Werner for wrongful death, alleging the tractor-trailer was defective. Six weeks later, the Ohio County Circuit Court dismissed the suit after Werner's attorneys suggest that there was no evidence Werner thought the tractor-trailer had been defective.

An appeal by the widows held that the evidence should have been preserved, but an appellate court upheld the lower court's dismissal. In March 2015, the state Supreme Court concurred and observed that Werner could not have expected the wreckage to have been used in civil litigation.

Source: Kyla Asbury, "Justices Affirm Ruling in Tractor-Trailer Accident Case," March 9, 2015

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