Punitive Damages Permissible In West Virginia Deliberate Intent Action But Only When “Specific Intent” Is Proven

While working on a pipeline, a worker was allegedly sprayed with dangerous chemicals that caused significant injuries.  He brought suit against a number of companies alleging damages from the exposure, the unsuccessful attempts to shower off the chemicals and decontaminate him, and inappropriate medical treatment.  Among the motions to dismiss filed, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia granted the motion of the worker’s employer (pipeline owner) to dismiss the plaintiff’s punitive damages claims against the employer.

The worker’s claims against the employer constituted a “deliberate intent” action under West Virginia law, which enables employers to lose their statutory immunity from civil liability for work-related injuries if 1) a plaintiff shows that the employer acted with “specific intent” to cause injury or death to an employee; or 2) a plaintiff shows that the employer acted with actual knowledge of a particular unsafe working condition and of the “high degree of risk and the strong probability of injury or death presented” by the unsafe condition.  Under this second method of establishing deliberate intent, West Virginia law specifically prohibits an award of punitive damages.

The court rejected the pipeline owner’s argument that because punitive damages are prohibited under the second method, there are no circumstances whatsoever in which punitive damages could be awarded for deliberate intent.  Punitive damages would be permissible under the first method, if an employee shows that the employer acted with “specific intent.”  In this case, however, the complaint did not allege such specific intent, and instead alleged that the facilities “presented a high degree of risk and a strong probability of serious injury or death,” which focus on the second method of proving deliberate intent.  Accordingly, punitive damages were not permissible and the court granted the pipeline owner’s motion to dismiss the claim for punitive damages.

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