WV Update – West Virginia Trial Court Grants Motion to Dismiss in Workers’ Compensation Lawsuit Based on Collateral Estoppel
On April 18, 2022, the West Virginia Circuit Court of Cabell County, West Virginia in Michael D. Ruble v. Rust-Oleum Corporation, Cabell County, West Virginia, Case No. 19-C-127, granted Defendant Matrix Chemical LLC’s (“Matrix”) Motion to Dismiss under West Virginia Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) based on collateral estoppel. The complaint alleged that Plaintiff, Michael D. Ruble (“Mr. Ruble”), was exposed to chemicals at Rust-Oleum facility in Lesage, West Virginia, where he worked from 1996 to 2018.
Prior to the action in the West Virginia Circuit Court, Mr. Ruble filed a West Virginia workers’ compensation claim against his employers, Rust-Oleum, Zinsser Co., Inc., and New Parks, as well as various chemical suppliers, including Matrix, for the same chemical exposures. Mr. Ruble alleged that the chemical exposures caused sensory neuropathy, dermatitis, tremors, and weakness of distal arms and legs, and pneumonia. On September 24, 2019, Mr. Ruble’s claim was denied by the Workers’ Compensation claim administrator, and he appealed the decision to the Workers’ Compensation Office of Judges. On October 15, 2020, the Office of Judges affirmed the denial, noting that Mr. Ruble “did not prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he developed sensory neuropathy and dermatitis in the course of and as a result of employment.” Mr. Ruble then appealed the decision to the Office of the Workers’ Compensation Board of Review, where the denial was again affirmed on April 22, 2021. Plaintiff missed the window to appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, so the Board of Review’s order was the final decision in the workers’ compensation proceedings.
On March 18, 2019, while the workers’ compensation proceedings were ongoing, Mr. Ruble and his wife (“Plaintiffs”) filed a complaint in the West Virginia Circuit Court of Cabell County alleging that the chemical exposure resulted in “development of sensory peripheral polyneuropathy, tremor and weakness of distal arms and legs, dermatitis, and pneumonia.” Plaintiffs set forth six claims: deliberate intent; negligence; breach of warranty; strict liability; negligent manufacture, installation, repair, or maintenance; and loss of consortium. The claims were identical to the allegations that served as the basis for Mr. Ruble’s application for workers’ compensation benefits.
On January 25, 2022, Matrix filed a Motion to Dismiss, arguing that the amended complaint failed to state a claim under West Virginia Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) based on collateral estoppel. Rule 12(b)(6) permits a court to dismiss a complaint that fails to “state a claim upon which relief is granted,” and allegations in the complaint are reviewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.
For collateral estoppel to attach to quasi-judicial determinations under West Virginia law, “the prior decision must be rendered pursuant to the agency’s adjudicatory authority and the procedures must be substantially similar to those used in court.” Vest v. Bd. Of Educ., 455 S.E.2d 781 (W. Va. 1995). If collateral estoppel attaches in these cases, a court will not reconsider any issues if four factors are present: (1) the previously-decided issue is identical to the current action; (2) there was a final adjudication on the merits in 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 has a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the prior action. State v. Miller, 459 S.E. 2d 114 (W. Va. 1995).
Here, the court first found that collateral estoppel attached to the decision of the Office of Judges and the order of the Board of Review because both were rendered pursuant to the agencies’ adjudicatory authorities and the procedures were substantially similar to those used in court. Second, the court found that Plaintiffs were precluded from relitigating their case because all four Miller requirements were present: (1) the workers compensation chemical exposure claims were identical to the issues present here; (2) the workers’ compensation proceedings resulted in a final adjudication on the merits that Mr. Ruble did not develop his injuries “in the course of and as a result of employment”; (3) collateral estoppel was asserted against the proper parties, Mr. Ruble and his wife; and (4) Mr. Ruble had a full and fair opportunity to litigate his claims prior to this action at the workers’ compensation proceedings by conducting depositions, presenting his own testimony, presenting lay and expert testimony, and presenting documentary evidence, medical journal articles, and medical records.
Finding that collateral estoppel applied to this matter, the court granted Matrix’s Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss. According, the court dismissed Plaintiffs’ Complaint with prejudice against all moving and non-moving defendants.