Whether the Circuit Court properly applied the common law and statutory causes of action for grave desecration in a case where defendant oil and gas operators constructed a roadway through an old cemetery during a pipeline relocation project? In addition to the proper application of grave desecration law under Hairston v. General Pipeline Const., Inc., 226 W.Va. 663 (2010), several other evidentiary/procedural errors are alleged by the Petitioners.
The parties to this case previously appeared before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in Hairston v. General Pipeline Const., Inc. which was decided in 2010. Among other things, Hairston attempted to clarify issues surrounding the enactment of a statutory scheme which prohibited the excavation, removal or destruction of burial grounds or unmarked graves without a permit. The Court therein stated that a statutory scheme preempted the common law of grave desecration as it applied to certain categories of graves. The case also addressed the elements of the common law claim and the individuals who possessed the right to recover under such a claim.
The underlying case here arises out of four causes of action filed in 2006 and 2007. Each of those cases involved General Pipeline Construction and Equitable Gas Companies relocating a gas pipeline in Logan County. Right of way construction work resulted in disturbances to an old cemetery referred to as the Crystal Block Cemetery. The parties dispute, factually, the appearance of the cemetery and facts relating to the knowledge and/or constructive knowledge that the pipeline companies had regarding the existence of the cemetery. The parties also dispute the extent of the disturbances caused to the area and the individuals who would be entitled to bring any cause of action for any improper actions taken by the Petitioners.
Positions of the Parties:
Petitioners (General Pipeline Construction):
The Petitioners primarily assert that the Court failed to make an appropriate ruling as to whether W.Va. Code 29-1-8a applied to the facts of this case or whether the common law cause of action for grave desecration applied. The Petitioners assert that the statutory scheme should have been applied and such a ruling would have been dispositive of many of the other issues involved as the statutory cause of action preempts the common law cause of action. Without such a ruling, the entire trial process was tainted and confused as to the law that applied. The Petitioners further assert several other arguments relating to the actual trial process. It is asserted that the trial court improperly permitted expert and/or lay witness testimony on issues related to the meaning of legal principles, that the trial court erred by not permitting a jury view, that sufficient evidence had not been presented to meet the elements of a common law grave desecration claim (even if those legal principles did apply), and that the trial court improperly permitted an adverse inference instruction with regard to spoliation of evidence claims.
Respondents (Hairston et al):
The Respondents assert that the Petitioners’ agents knew before they entered the cemetery that the cemetery existed and that they continued their work nonetheless. The Respondents assert that the trial court did make rulings as to the applicability of W.Va. Code 29-1-8a and the common law. The Respondents assert that the trial court clearly determined that the case involved claims available under both theories of recovery and both legal principles should have been and were presented. The Respondents further assert that the Petitioners’ theories of error relating to W.Va. Code 29-1-8a were not sufficiently set forth to preserve any claims for appeal. With regard to the issues relating to the presentation of the case to the jury, the Respondents assert that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in permitting the lay and expert witness testimony, it did not abuse its discretion in denying a jury view, it did not abuse its discretion in permitting the case to go to the jury, it did not abuse its discretion regarding the spoliation of evidence, and that it did not abuse its discretion in accepting the emotional distress verdicts awarded by the jury.
While presenting an interesting set of facts, this case may not have a tremendous impact for individuals or entities beyond those actually involved in this case. The particular facts at issue and the particular procedures used by the parties and the trial court will be discussed at length and may result in a decision which has limited precedential value moving forward.