WV Supreme Court Overturns $1.2M Jury Award

Liz Carey

Clarksburg, WV (WorkersCompensation.com) – The West Virginia Supreme Court overturned a jury’s decision to give $1.2 million to a FirstEnergy employee injured in 2013.

The 4-1 opinion found that the employee had not proven that the company had a deliberate intention to harm James J. Muto; the only way his injuries would not solely be covered by workers’ compensation.

Muto was a scrubber operator at FirstEnergy’s Harrison Power Station in January 2013. According to court records, Muto fell down multiple levels of stairs when went to investigate the source of a dust problem. Unaware that a maintenance crew was in the process of replacing a rotary feeder, Muto fell through a walkway where grates had been removed in a silo.

In 2016, a jury found FirstEnergy responsible for Muto’s fall because unsafe working conditions existed and presented “a high degree of risk and a serious possibility of death.”

“Supervisors or management-level employees at FirstEnergy actually know of that condition prior to the accident and knew that it posed a high degree of risk and a strong possibility of serious injury,” the jury said, according to court records. The jury also found that the unsafe condition violated a “well-known safety standard within the industry that is specifically applicable to the work involved in this case,” and that Muto had been “intentionally exposed” to that condition.

The jury awarded Muto $500,000 for pain and suffering, both past and future, $695,000 for lost wages, past and future, and awarded Muto’s wife, Carol Muto, $25,000 for loss of companionship.

FirstEnergy appealed the case.

The five Supreme Court justices looked at whether or not the actions of FirstEnergy were deliberately intentional and found that they weren’t.

“Mr. Muto testified that had he been made aware of the nature of the maintenance crew’s work, he would have immediately known the cause of the dust and would have never entered the silo,” Justice Allen H. Loughry II, wrote in the court’s decision. “While the lack of communication or miscommunication that occurred in this case may constitute negligence, there is simply no evidence that FirstEnergy intentionally exposed Mr. Muto to an unsafe working condition. As this Court has noted ‘the deliberate intention exception to the Workers’ Compensation system is meant to deter the malicious employer, not to punish the stupid one.’”

Neither Muto’s attorney, Jeff Van Volkenburg, nor FirstEnergy’s attorney, Steve LaCagin, returned calls and emails for comment by press time to WorkersCompensation.com.