State ex rel. Ford Motro Co. v. McGraw

Decision Date18 May 2016
Docket NumberNo. 15–1149.,15–1149.
Citation788 S.E.2d 319,237 W.Va. 573
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of West Virginia ex rel. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Petitioner v. Honorable Warren R. McGRAW, Judge of the Circuit Court of Wyoming County; and Danny S. Wellman, Administrator of the Estate of Jarred S. Wellman, Respondents.

Jonathan D. Hacker, Pro Hac Vice, Bradley N. Garcia, O'Melveny & Myers, LLP, Washington, D.C., Michael Bonasso, Elizabeth L. Taylor, Mitchell B. Tuggle, Flaherty, Sensabaugh, Bonasso, PLLC, Charleston, WV, Attorneys for the Petitioner.

Christopher L. Slaughter, Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC, Huntington, WV, Attorney for Amicus Curiae, West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

Todd S. Wiseman, The Wiseman Law Firm, Vienna, WV, Attorney for Amicus Curiae, The Center for Auto Safety.

L. Lee Javins, II, Bailey, Javins & Carter, LC, Charleston, WV, Attorney for Amicus Curiae, The Attorneys Information Exchange Group.

Patrick E. McFarland, Patrick E. McFarland, PLLC, Parkersburg, WV, Christopher J. Heavens, Heavens Law Firm, PLLC, Charleston, WV, Jamie D. Jackson, Pro Hac Vice, Atlee Hall, PLLC, Lancaster, PA, Attorneys for the Respondent, Danny S. Wellman.

DAVIS, Justice:

The petitioner herein and defendant below, Ford Motor Company (Ford), requests this Court to issue a writ of prohibition to prevent the enforcement of orders entered October 5 and 21, 2015, by the Circuit Court of Wyoming County and to dismiss Ford from the underlying civil action. By those orders, the circuit court denied Ford's motion to dismiss the underlying complaint against it for lack of personal jurisdiction. Before this Court, Ford contends the circuit court erred by refusing to dismiss it from the litigation because Ford is a nonresident corporation over which the circuit court lacks personal jurisdiction.

Upon a review of the petition; the response of the respondent and plaintiff below, Danny S. Wellman, Administrator of the Estate of Jarred S. Wellman, Deceased; the record; and the pertinent authorities, we grant the requested writ of prohibition, as moulded, and remand this case to the Circuit Court of Wyoming County for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.1

I.FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Jarred Wellman, a West Virginia resident, was killed on March 4, 2013, in a one-car roll-over crash near Ghent, West Virginia. He was operating a 2002 Ford Explorer. It is alleged that, during the crash, the Ford Explorer's safety seatbelt released webbing, the roof crushed, the driver's window shattered out, and Jarred Wellman was partially ejected from the vehicle such that his head and upper torso struck the pavement resulting in his death due to head trauma.

The Ford Explorer was assembled at Ford's manufacturing facility in Louisville, Kentucky. It was sold to Sunrise Ford Company (Sunrise) in Fort Pierce, Florida. The Ford Explorer arrived at Sunrise on December 19, 2001. Sunrise sold it to a Florida resident on January 21, 2002. Ramey Automotive Group, Inc. (“Ramey”) in Beckley, West Virginia, acquired the Ford Explorer with 67,017 miles in May 2009 and offered it for sale. Ramey performed safety inspections, engine checks, battery system checks, engine electrical checks, accessory installations, and other services on the Ford Explorer during 2009 and 2010. MacArthur Auto Body & Repair Shop (“MacArthur”) in Beckley, West Virginia, purchased the Ford Explorer from Ramey. Jarred Wellman purchased the Ford Explorer from MacArthur.

The respondent herein and plaintiff below is Danny S. Wellman (Mr. Wellman), the father and administrator of the estate of Jarred Wellman. Mr. Wellman is a West Virginia resident. Mr. Wellman filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Wyoming County asserting causes of action grounded in claims of product liability, negligence, and breach of warranty against Ford Motor Company and Ramey.

Ford was served with the summons and the complaint on February 10, 2015. Ford removed the case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia and reserved the right to challenge personal jurisdiction. On March 31, 2015, Mr. Wellman filed a motion to remand the action to the Circuit Court of Wyoming County. On June 5, 2015, the federal district court entered an order granting the motion for a remand. The remand was stayed pending a determination of attorney's fees and costs incurred as a result of the improvident removal. On September 11, 2015, a second order was entered by the federal district court whereby the stay was lifted, the case was remanded, and the issue of attorney's fees and costs was reserved. During the period of time between the two orders of the federal district court, Mr. Wellman and Ford negotiated regarding various discovery matters, protocols, stipulations, and confidentiality issues. The two parties also negotiated and agreed to a protocol for a vehicle inspection which governed an inspection of the Ford Explorer that took place in August 2015.

The federal district court order lifting the stay and remanding the action was filed in Wyoming County Circuit Court on September 18, 2015. Thereafter, a Stipulated Sharing and Non–Sharing Protective Order and a Stipulation and Order Regarding Access to www.Forddocs.com, were signed by the trial court judge on September 16, 2015, and filed by the clerk of the court on September 21, 2015. A Notice of Scheduling Conference was entered on September 22, 2015. On September 23, 2015, Ford filed a Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction with an accompanying memorandum of law and supporting affidavits from a Ford franchise strategy manager and a Ford retail communications manager. The motion to dismiss was noticed for a hearing to be held on October 28, 2015.

On October 5, 2015, prior to the time that Mr. Wellman's response in opposition to the motion to dismiss was due and prior to the scheduled hearing on the motion, the trial court entered a one paragraph order denying Ford's motion to dismiss. On October 15, 2015, Ford submitted a motion requesting that the trial court issue an order with findings of fact and conclusions of law so that it could proceed to file a writ of prohibition with this Court to challenge the exercise of personal jurisdiction as to Ford. Ford also requested that the trial court stay further proceedings pending resolution of the writ of prohibition.2

Again, without a hearing and with no opportunity provided to Mr. Wellman to respond or to submit material to make a record, on October 21, 2015, the trial court entered its Order Setting Forth Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law that Support the Court's Order Denying Motion to Dismiss. As to findings of fact, the trial court, among other things, found that “Ford Motor Company is a global operation,” Ford manufactured the vehicle involved, and Ford “essentially claims” that it does not do business in West Virginia.

Regarding conclusions of law, the trial court found that, based upon the judicial history of the litigation, granting the motion to dismiss would “effectively deprive” Mr. Wellman of his constitutional right of access to open courts for injury done to him. The trial court cited to Article 3, section 17 of the Constitution of West Virginia which provides that [t]he courts of this State shall be open, and every person, for an injury done to him in his person, property or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law; and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.” Also cited in support of the denial of the motion to dismiss was the Due Process Clause of the Constitution of West Virginia, Article 3, section 10, which provides that [n]o person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, and the judgment of his peers.”

Further, the order provided that to interpret the Constitution to allow summary dismissal of a claim “based upon some complex and intricate interpretation of the law” would violate the intent of the Constitution to guarantee the right to have one's case heard in court and decided by one's peers. The trial court concluded that it is the “ultimate absurdity” to suggest that Ford, the leading automobile manufacturer in the United States for more than a century, does not do business in West Virginia. The order provided that [t]o hold Ford Motor Company does not do business in West Virginia to a sufficient degree to be ‘at home’ in West Virginia and be required to respond in our courts meets the ultimate [absurdity] definition from Black's Law Dictionary....” Finally, the trial court concluded that [t]he Ford emblem and logo, which may have existed for well over one-hundred years, is notably proper for the world's leading manufacturer of automobiles in that it is a globe of the world....” From this adverse ruling, Ford seeks extraordinary relief from this Court to prohibit the trial court from enforcing its order.

II.STANDARD FOR ISSUANCE OF WRIT

This Court has original jurisdiction in prohibition proceedings pursuant to Article VIII, section 3 of the Constitution of West Virginia. That original jurisdiction is recognized in Rule 16 of the West Virginia Rules of Appellate Procedure and by West Virginia Code §§ 51–1–3 (1923) (Repl. Vol. 2008) and 53–1–2 (1933) (Repl. Vol. 2008). “A writ of prohibition ‘lies as a matter of right whenever the inferior court (a) has [no] jurisdiction or (b) has jurisdiction but exceeds its legitimate powers....' State ex rel. Farber v. Mazzone, 213 W.Va. 661, 664, 584 S.E.2d 517, 520 (2003) (quoting State ex rel. Valley Distrib., Inc. v. Oakley, 153 W.Va. 94, 99, 168 S.E.2d 532, 535 (1969) ). As this Court specified in Syllabus point 10 of Jennings v. McDougle, 83 W.Va. 186, 98 S.E. 162 (1919), [w]hen a court is attempting to proceed in a cause without jurisdiction, prohibition will issue as a matter of right regardless of the existence of other remedies.” However, relief in prohibition is inappropriate where...

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