1. Does the Supreme Court have authority to review findings of the West Virginia Legislative Claims Commission and, if so, what is the scope of that authority?
2. Is the Commission bound by the Rules of Evidence? Specifically, may the Commission admit hearsay statements that were allegedly reviewed and relied upon by a testifying expert?
Jonathan LaDanye was a passenger in a car that was being driven by a friend, James Coffman, who was allegedly intoxicated. Kaufman exited I-79 and collided with a pile of snow that had been recently removed from the roadway. The snow pile acted as a ramp, sending the car over the side of a bridge and plummeting 30 feet to the ground below. LaDanye was killed in the resulting crash.
Petitioner, as LaDanye’s administrator, filed a claim against the Department of Transportation (DOT) in the West Virginia Legislative Claims Commission. Petitioner alleged that the DOT violated its own operating rules by failing to remove the snow pile from the bridge, thereby creating a safety hazard. When the case was tried, the DOT’s expert testified regarding certain hearsay statements he had reviewed. These included (1) the crash report, and (2) the statements of witnesses contained in the criminal file where Coffman was charged with DUI. Relying, in part, on the hearsay statements, the Commission found that the DOT was not liable in causing or contributing to LaDanye’s death. LaDanye files this petition for certiorari seeking review of the Commission’s findings.
Petitioner’s first argument concerns the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to review findings by the Commission. W.Va. Code 14-2-28 specifically limits the Supreme Court’s review, stating that the Commission only issues “recommendations” and that the payment of claims remains entirely “at legislative discretion.” According to Petitioner, W.Va. Code 14-2-28 is an unconstitutional “attempt to rob this court of jurisdiction.”
Petitioner also argues that the Commission is, in effect, a judicial body and is therefore bound to apply the rules of evidence. Even if the Commission is not a judicial body, the Supreme Court still has jurisdiction via certiorari to review the Commission’s evidentiary rulings--particularly where, as here, the Commission has admitted hearsay statements and specifically relied on them as support for its findings.
The Commission concedes that the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review its findings. However, it insists this review can only be accomplished via a writ of certiorari--a writ that provides only limited review. Thus, the Court cannot review the “intrinsic correctness” of the Commission’s findings, but can only decide if the Commission has “departed from the essential requirements of the law.”
Because the Commission is only a quasai judicial body created by the legislature, the rules of evidence simply do not apply. The Commission has the statutory power to “accept and weigh, in accordance with its evidentiary value, any information that will assist the Commission in determining the factual basis of a claim.” W.Va. Code 14-2-15. Therefore, the Commission was authorized to admit, consider, and rely on hearsay statements in making its findings.
In its brief, the DOT specifically rejects the argument that the Commission is bound by the rules of evidence. Indeed, the statutory purpose of the Commission (i.e., to insure the “simple expeditious and inexpensive” determination of claims) mandates that it follow different evidentiary guidelines. In any event, the DOT argues that the hearsay statements considered by the Commission were, in fact, admissible under the Rules of Evidence.
Regarding the remainder of Petitioner’s arguments, the DOT characterizes these as arguments concerning the “weight” given by the Commission to certain items of evidence. These arguments are beyond the scope of review under a writ of certiorari. Furthermore, the Commission, as a body, can only make recommendations to the legislature--nothing more. There is no authority for the Supreme Court to review or alter the Commission’s recommendations.
This case will have important ramifications for injury victims, not only in cases involving the DOT, but in other cases where there is no insurance covering a state entity. Without insurance coverage, victims must proceed before the Commission. Victims having their claims decided by the Commission are entitled to be treated fairly, to have their claims decided according to law, and to have a full opportunity for judicial review. Here, the Supreme Court will decide if these guarantees will be met or if the Commission’s findings will, in effect, be unreviewable.