Most of the semi truck accident lawsuits I write about here involve private trucking companies. Long-haul trucking is largely private, and the for-profit nature of those companies can drive some of the most unsafe behavior that can lead to a trucking crash. But trucks are driven every day by government employees, and of course, they can do just as much damage as any other truck. And when any government agency is involved in a crash, the victims have to be especially prompt and careful about seeking compensation, because government agencies are subject to special rules that make it more difficult to sue them and require special procedures. In Jackson v. Belcher, the West Virginia Supreme Court decided that one of those special rules does not automatically apply to dump truck driver Joseph Jackson, giving Joseph Belcher a chance to pursue his lawsuit.
Belcher sued Jackson and Jackson’s employer, the West Virginia Department of Transportation, Division of Highways, after a crash between Belcher’s car and Jackson’s dump truck. Jackson was on an emergency cleanup crew clearing the highway after severe storms that led the governor to declare a state of emergency. Jackson was backing up the dump truck when it hit Belcher’s car; Belcher says the truck was in his blind spot. The vehicle was totaled and Belcher suffered neck and back injuries. He sued in 2011, and after answering, Jackson and the DOH moved for summary judgment, claiming immunity because Jackson was acting as an emergency worker at the time. The court ultimately denied summary judgment, saying there are exceptions to statutory immunity and the statute does not appear to close all avenues of relief.
The West Virginia Supreme Court started by analyzing the trial court’s logic. The statute giving immunity to emergency workers says qualified emergency workers shall not be liable for deaths, injuries or property damage as a result of their work, except in cases of willful misconduct. This is followed with “This section does not affect the right of any person to receive benefits or compensation to which he or she would be otherwise entitled under… any other law.” The trial court took that to include prior decisions of the state high court, and applied a ruling finding constitutional immunity doesn’t apply to suits seeking recovery from insurance policies rather than state funds. The parties disagree as to whether the “any other law” clause applies to judicial decisions. The high court found it did, using ordinary definitions of the plain language of the statute. “Any” means “law from all sources,” it said, and the decision cited can apply to this suit. Thus, it affirmed the trial court.
It’s interesting that West Virginia has developed this exception to the sovereign immunity that government agencies typically enjoy. That’s good news for people like Belcher, who will now have a chance to prove his trucking injury lawsuit against Jackson, the dump truck driver, and the state transportation department. In general, though, it’s not just sovereign immunity that people injured by government agencies must watch out for. If you have an exception to the immunity, as Belcher did, you are often still required to follow special administrative procedures, such as filing an administrative claim and exhausting the attached remedies, before you may sue. That’s why it’s so important to call an experienced tractor-trailer accident lawyer as soon as you realize you want to sue.
If you or someone you love suffered serious injuries because of a trucking company’s or trucker’s negligence, Carey, Danis & Lowe may be able to help. To tell us about your case and learn more about your rights, call us toll-free at 1-877-678-3400 or send us an email.
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