Jordan v. Jenkins, No. 19-0890

CourtSupreme Court of West Virginia
Writing for the CourtHUTCHISON, Justice
Citation859 S.E.2d 700
Parties Tessa Ann JORDAN and Lynn Jordan, Defendants Below, Petitioners v. Joseph M. JENKINS and Stephanie D. Jenkins, Plaintiffs Below, Respondents Safeco Insurance Company of America and Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, Defendants Below, Petitioners v. Joseph M. Jenkins and Stephanie D. Jenkins, Plaintiffs Below, Respondents
Docket NumberNo. 19-0890, No. 19-0899
Decision Date15 June 2021

859 S.E.2d 700

Tessa Ann JORDAN and Lynn Jordan, Defendants Below, Petitioners
v.
Joseph M. JENKINS and Stephanie D. Jenkins, Plaintiffs Below, Respondents

Safeco Insurance Company of America and Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, Defendants Below, Petitioners
v.
Joseph M. Jenkins and Stephanie D. Jenkins, Plaintiffs Below, Respondents

No. 19-0890
No. 19-0899

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.

Submitted: March 23, 2021
Filed: June 15, 2021


Ancil G. Ramey. Esq., Hannah C. Ramey, Esq., Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC, Huntington, West Virginia, David P. Cook Jr., Esq., MacCorkle Lavender PLLC, Charleston, West Virginia, Counsel for Petitioners, Tessa Ann Jordan & Lynn Jordan.

William M. Harter, Esq., Frost Brown Todd, LLC, Columbus, Ohio, Carte P. Goodwin, Esq., Elise N. McQuain, Esq., Frost Brown Todd, LLC, Charleston, West Virginia, Counsel for Petitioners, Safeco Insurance Company of America & Liberty Mutual Insurance Company.

David J. Romano, Esq., Romano Law Office, LC, Clarksburg, West Virginia, Counsel for Respondents, Joseph M. Jenkins & Stephanie D. Jenkins.

HUTCHISON, Justice:

859 S.E.2d 709

Before this Court are two appeals arising from adverse jury verdicts rendered in separate trials conducted in the Circuit Court of Harrison County following an automobile accident involving Respondent Joseph Jenkins and Petitioner Tessa Jordan. The first trial concerned the calculation of damages sustained by Mr. Jenkins and his wife, Stephanie Jenkins, as a result of the accident, which the parties stipulated was caused entirely through the fault of Ms. Jordan. Ms. Jordan and her father, Petitioner Lynn Jordan, raise various trial errors in their appeal of the jury's calculation of damages (Appeal No. 19-0890).

Respondents Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins also sued the Jordans’ insurance carrier, Safeco Insurance Company of America and Liberty Mutual Insurance Company (collectively "Safeco"), for, inter alia, the tort of conversion, and a second, bifurcated trial was conducted on respondents’ claims for compensatory

859 S.E.2d 710

and punitive damages. Safeco appeals the jury's conclusion that respondents are entitled to punitive damages in the amount of $60,000 for converting Mr. Jenkins's totaled vehicle for which he was awarded $1,000 in compensatory damages (Appeal No. 19-0899).

Upon our careful review of the appendix record in both appeals, the applicable law, and the arguments of all parties, and for the reasons set forth below, we reverse the circuit court's order denying the Jordans’ motion to set aside the verdict and for a new trial in Appeal No. 19-0890, and remand that case for a new trial.

In Appeal No. 19-0899, we affirm the circuit court's order denying Safeco's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial but reverse the court's order denying Safeco's motion to reduce the punitive damages award and remand to the circuit court, with directions.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

On October 15, 2017, Mr. Jenkins and Ms. Jordan were involved in an automobile collision in Weston, West Virginia, when Ms. Jordan ran a red light and hit Mr. Jenkins's vehicle head on. While Mr. Jenkins was transported to a hospital by ambulance, his vehicle, a 2009 Chevrolet Aveo, was towed from the accident scene to J.E. Hitt Garage and Body Shop ("Hitt's Garage" or "Hitt's") located in Weston.

Because Mr. Jenkins believed that Ms. Jordan was at fault for the accident given that she had been cited at the scene by law enforcement for failing to stop at a red signal, he twice called her insurance carrier, Safeco1 on October 17, 2017, for the purpose of obtaining a rental vehicle at Safeco's expense. As a heavy equipment operator, Mr. Jenkins travels extensively by car for his work and was in need of transportation. Safeco advised Mr. Jenkins that it would not pay for a rental vehicle until liability was determined but that Mr. Jenkins could contact his own insurance carrier or pay out-of-pocket for a rental and then be reimbursed if Ms. Jordan's liability was established. According to Safeco's records, Mr. Jenkins "advised that he might get an attorney involved due to the way the claim is handled [sic]." Unbeknownst to Mr. Jenkins, on October 19, 2017, Safeco determined that its insured, Ms. Jordan, was at fault for the collision.2

With financial assistance from his father, Mr. Jenkins rented a vehicle from October 17, 2017, through November 2, 2017, for a total of seventeen days, at a rate of $62.47 per day, and paid the total amount of $1,061.99. Mr. Jenkins purchased a replacement vehicle in December of 2017.

Meanwhile, Mr. Jenkins's wrecked vehicle remained at Hitt's Garage. It is undisputed that the vehicle was not to be moved from Hitt's until it was released by Mr. Jenkins or his agent.

Mr. Jenkins's vehicle was finally inspected at Hitt's Garage on January 3, 2018, by James B. Conrad of Conrad Claim Service LLC, and an estimate and report was ultimately sent to Safeco. The vehicle was determined to be a total loss. Mr. Conrad subsequently forwarded photos of the vehicle and his report to Mr. Jenkins's counsel. Thereafter, by letter dated January 15, 2018, approximately

859 S.E.2d 711

three months after the accident, Safeco advised Mr. Jenkins as follows:

We understand at this time that you have not yet decided whether you intend to retain the salvage of your [vehicle].

If you decide to keep the vehicle:3

• Please contact us before January 18, 2018.

• To go over the next steps.

If you decide you do not want to keep the vehicle:

• I have set up a tow for our Copart Salvage yard to pick up the vehicle, you will need to release the vehicle with Hitt's Garage for Safeco Insurance to pick up. Please remove your personal belongs [sic] out of the vehicle.

....

In order for us to process your claim as quickly as possible, we ask that you return your properly signed paperwork [i.e., the vehicle's title and a Power of Attorney] by January 19, 2018.

If your vehicle is currently accruing storage costs at an auto repair facility or tow yard, please be advised that our obligation to pay for storage costs will end as of January 18, 2018. Any costs incurred after this date will be your responsibility.

(Footnote added and emphasis in original).4

Mr. Jenkins never released the vehicle. Although Safeco's correspondence to Mr. Jenkins was received on January 17, 2018, Mr. Jenkins was out of town for work, and he did not open the letter until January 22, 2018. By that time, and despite Safeco's assurance in the letter that no action with regard to the vehicle would be taken without Mr. Jenkins's input, the vehicle had already been moved from Hitt's. On January 16, 2018, Safeco had made an assignment to Copart, Inc. ("Copart") to store Mr. Jenkins's totaled vehicle for eventual sale for salvage. According to Safeco, when the assignment was made, a Safeco claims adjuster advised Copart that she was "unsure" if Mr. Jenkins had released the vehicle. On January 17, 2018, an employee from Hitt's Garage advised a Copart employee that the vehicle had been released, and the following day, a Copart vendor, Scrap and Transport Company, transported the vehicle from Hitt's to Copart's lot in Hurricane, West Virginia.5 By correspondence dated January 25, 2019, Safeco advised Mr. Jenkins that the vehicle had been moved to the Copart lot where it remained up until and including the time of trial.

In a complaint filed on March 13, 2018, respondents alleged, as against Ms. Jordan, negligence/gross negligence in the manner in which she caused her vehicle to strike Mr. Jenkins's vehicle head on, causing him to suffer bodily injury and property damage to his vehicle. As against Ms. Jordan's father, Lynn Jordan, the Jenkinses alleged that he was vicariously liable for the acts of Ms. Jordan under the family purpose doctrine. Mrs. Jenkins alleged a claim for loss of consortium. Respondents and the Jordans eventually entered into a stipulation that, "as a matter of law, 100% of the fault for the automobile collision" was that of Ms. Jordan. This stipulation was adopted by the circuit court.

Respondents also alleged that the Jordans’ insurer, Safeco, and two of its employees, claims adjusters Sara Abell and Rhonda Rutledge6 trespassed and converted Mr. Jenkins's vehicle without his consent or permission and "mov[ed] it to an unknown location maintaining control and dominion over his property that they knew did not belong to

859 S.E.2d 712

them."7 Respondents alleged that Safeco's conduct constituted negligence, gross negligence, trespass, conversion, theft, the tort of outrage, and a civil conspiracy. Respondents sought punitive damages from all named defendants.

Prior to trial, Safeco filed a motion "for a separate trial from that against the Jordans" and "to bifurcate compensatory and punitive damages claims within the separate trial." Similarly, the Jordans filed a motion to bifurcate, upon, inter alia, the ground that they would be prejudiced by the injection of "issues of insurance coverage ... into the underlying case." The Jordans argued that West Virginia Rule of Evidence 411 prohibits the admission of evidence that a person was insured against...

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1 practice notes
  • Fairmont Tool, Inc. v. Opyoke, 20-1042
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • June 9, 2022
    ...prevailing party. See Fredeking, 224 W.Va. at 1, 680 S.E.2d at 17, Syl. Pt. 3. See also Syl. Pt. 11, Jordan v. Jenkins, 245 W.Va. 532, 859 S.E.2d 700 (2021) ("It is the peculiar and exclusive province of a jury to weigh the evidence and to resolve questions of fact when the testimony of wit......
1 cases
  • Fairmont Tool, Inc. v. Opyoke, 20-1042
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • June 9, 2022
    ...prevailing party. See Fredeking, 224 W.Va. at 1, 680 S.E.2d at 17, Syl. Pt. 3. See also Syl. Pt. 11, Jordan v. Jenkins, 245 W.Va. 532, 859 S.E.2d 700 (2021) ("It is the peculiar and exclusive province of a jury to weigh the evidence and to resolve questions of fact when the testimony of wit......

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