Peters v. Rivers Edge Min., Inc.

Decision Date04 June 2009
Docket NumberNo. 34272.,34272.
Citation680 S.E.2d 791
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
PartiesGeorge M. PETERS, Plaintiff Below, Appellee, v. RIVERS EDGE MINING, INC., a Delaware Corporation, Defendant Below, Appellant.

Syllabus by the Court

1. "The appellate standard of review for an order granting or denying a renewed motion for a judgment as a matter of law after trial pursuant to Rule 50(b) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure [1998] is de novo." Syllabus point 1 of Fredeking v. Tyler, ___ W.Va. ___, 680 S.E.2d 16, 2009 WL 497585 (2009).

2. "`[T]he ruling of a trial court in granting or denying a motion for a new trial is entitled to great respect and weight, [and] the trial court's ruling will be reversed on appeal [only] when it is clear that the trial court has acted under some misapprehension of the law or the evidence.' Syl. pt. 4, in part, Sanders v. Georgia-Pacific Corp., 159 W.Va. 621, 225 S.E.2d 218 (1976)." Syllabus point 2, Estep v. Mike Ferrell Ford Lincoln-Mercury, Inc., 223 W.Va. 209, 672 S.E.2d 345 (2008).

3. "The standard of review applicable to an appeal from a motion to alter or amend a judgment, made pursuant to W. Va. R. Civ. P. 59(e), is the same standard that would apply to the underlying judgment upon which the motion is based and from which the appeal to this Court is filed." Syllabus point 1, Wickland v. American Travellers Life Insurance Co., 204 W.Va. 430, 513 S.E.2d 657 (1998).

4. "Where the issue on an appeal from the circuit court is clearly a question of law or involving an interpretation of a statute, we apply a de novo standard of review." Syllabus point 1, Chrystal R.M. v. Charlie A.L., 194 W.Va. 138, 459 S.E.2d 415 (1995).

5. "In reviewing challenges to the findings and conclusions of the circuit court, we apply a two-prong deferential standard of review. We review the final order and the ultimate disposition under an abuse of discretion standard, and we review the circuit court's underlying factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard. Questions of law are subject to de novo review." Syllabus point 2, Walker v. West Virginia Ethics Commission, 201 W.Va. 108, 492 S.E.2d 167 (1997).

6. "`Preemption is a question of law reviewed de novo.' Hartley Marine Corp. v. Mierke, 196 W.Va. 669, 673, 474 S.E.2d 599, 603 (1996), citing Kollar v. United Transportation Union, 83 F.3d 124, 125 (5th Cir. 1996)." Syllabus point 2, Lontz v. Tharp, 220 W.Va. 282, 647 S.E.2d 718 (2007) (per curiam).

7. "An action for wrongful termination under W. Va.Code § 23-5A-1 (1981) is not pre-empted by federal labor law." Syllabus point 2 of Yoho v. Triangle PWC, Inc., 175 W.Va. 556, 336 S.E.2d 204 (1985).

8. An action for wrongful termination under W. Va.Code § 23-5A-3 (1990) (Repl. Vol. 2005) is not pre-empted by federal labor law.

9. "Collateral estoppel will bar a claim if four conditions are met: (1) The issue previously decided is identical to the one presented in the action in question; (2) there is a final adjudication on the merits of the prior action; (3) the party against whom the doctrine is invoked was a party or in privity with a party to a prior action; and (4) the party against whom the doctrine is raised had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the prior action." Syllabus point 1, State v. Miller, 194 W.Va. 3, 459 S.E.2d 114 (1995).

10. "The application of the doctrine of collateral estoppel is discretionary with the trial court[.]" Syllabus point 7, in part, Conley v. Spillers, 171 W.Va. 584, 301 S.E.2d 216 (1983).

11. An employee who asserts a claim alleging workers' compensation discrimination in accordance with W. Va.Code § 23-5A-1, et seq., may recover damages for front pay in lieu of reinstatement. Whether the facts of a particular case warrant an award of front pay in lieu of reinstatement is a decision committed to the circuit court, and such a determination will be reviewed for an abuse of discretion.

12. "It is the peculiar and exclusive province of a jury to weigh the evidence and to resolve questions of fact when the testimony of witnesses regarding them is conflicting and the finding of the jury upon such facts will not ordinarily be disturbed." Syllabus point 2, Skeen v. C & G Corp., 155 W.Va. 547, 185 S.E.2d 493 (1971).

13. "Unless a wrongful discharge is malicious, the wrongfully discharged employee has a duty to mitigate damages by accepting similar employment to that contemplated by his or her contract if it is available in the local area, and the actual wages received, or the wages the employee could have received at comparable employment where it is locally available, will be deducted from any back pay award; however, the burden of raising the issue of mitigation is on the employer." Syllabus point 2, Mason County Board of Education v. State Superintendent of Schools, 170 W.Va. 632, 295 S.E.2d 719 (1982).

14. "Upon petition, this Court will review all punitive damages awards. In our review of the petition, we will consider the same factors that we require the jury and trial judge to consider, and all petitions must address each and every factor set forth in Syllabus Points 3 and 4 of this case with particularity, summarizing the evidence presented to the jury on the subject or to the trial court at the post-judgment review stage. Assignments of error related to a factor not specifically addressed in the petition will be deemed waived as a matter of state law." Syllabus point 5, Garnes v. Fleming Landfill, Inc., 186 W.Va. 656, 413 S.E.2d 897 (1991).

15. "Under our punitive damage jurisprudence, it is imperative that the amount of the punitive damage award be reviewed in the first instance by the trial court by applying the model specified in Syllabus Points 3 and 4 of Garnes v. Fleming Landfill, Inc., 186 W.Va. 656, 413 S.E.2d 897 (1991), and Syllabus Point 15 of TXO Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources Corp., 187 W.Va. 457, 419 S.E.2d 870 (1992), aff'd, 509 U.S. 443, 113 S.Ct. 2711, 125 L.Ed.2d 366 (1993). Thereafter, and upon petition, this Court will review the amount of the punitive damage award, applying the standard specified in Syllabus Point 5 of Garnes." Syllabus point 5, Alkire v. First National Bank of Parsons, 197 W.Va. 122, 475 S.E.2d 122 (1996).

16. When reviewing an award of punitive damages in accordance with Syllabus point 5 of Garnes v. Fleming Landfill, Inc., 186 W.Va. 656, 413 S.E.2d 897 (1991), and Syllabus point 5 of Alkire v. First National Bank of Parsons, 197 W.Va. 122, 475 S.E.2d 122 (1996), this Court will review de novo the jury's award of punitive damages and the circuit court's ruling approving, rejecting, or reducing such award.

17. "When the trial court instructs the jury on punitive damages, the court should, at a minimum, carefully explain the factors to be considered in awarding punitive damages. These factors are as follows:

(1) Punitive damages should bear a reasonable relationship to the harm that is likely to occur from the defendant's conduct as well as to the harm that actually has occurred. If the defendant's actions caused or would likely cause in a similar situation only slight harm, the damages should be relatively small. If the harm is grievous, the damages should be greater.

(2) The jury may consider (although the court need not specifically instruct on each element if doing so would be unfairly prejudicial to the defendant), the reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct. The jury should take into account how long the defendant continued in his actions, whether he was aware his actions were causing or were likely to cause harm, whether he attempted to conceal or cover up his actions or the harm caused by them, whether/how often the defendant engaged in similar conduct in the past, and whether the defendant made reasonable efforts to make amends by offering a fair and prompt settlement for the actual harm caused once his liability became clear to him.

(3) If the defendant profited from his wrongful conduct, the punitive damages should remove the profit and should be in excess of the profit, so that the award discourages future bad acts by the defendant.

(4) As a matter of fundamental fairness, punitive damages should bear a reasonable relationship to compensatory damages.

(5) The financial position of the defendant is relevant."

Syllabus point 3, Garnes v. Fleming Landfill, Inc., 186 W.Va. 656, 413 S.E.2d 897 (1991).

18. "When the trial court reviews an award of punitive damages, the court should, at a minimum, consider the factors given to the jury as well as the following additional factors:

(1) The costs of the litigation;

(2) Any criminal sanctions imposed on the defendant for his conduct;

(3) Any other civil actions against the same defendant, based on the same conduct; and

(4) The appropriateness of punitive damages to encourage fair and reasonable settlements when a clear wrong has been committed. A factor that may justify punitive damages is the cost of litigation to the plaintiff.

Because not all relevant information is available to the jury, it is likely that in some cases the jury will make an award that is reasonable on the facts as the jury know them, but that will require downward adjustment by the trial court through remittitur because of factors that would be prejudicial to the defendant if admitted at trial, such as criminal sanctions imposed or similar lawsuits pending elsewhere against the defendant. However, at the option of the defendant, or in the sound discretion of the trial court, any of the above factors may also be presented to the jury." Syllabus point 4, Garnes v. Fleming Landfill, Inc., 186 W.Va. 656, 413 S.E.2d 897 (1991).

19. "Our punitive damage jurisprudence includes a two-step paradigm: first, a determination of whether the conduct of an actor toward another person entitles that person to a punitive damage award under Mayer v. Frobe, 40 W.Va. 246, 22 S.E. 58 (1895); second,...

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