Did the trial court have personal jurisdiction over Petitioner, an out-of-state corporation providing training to franchisees who were engaged in tree trimming and removal in West Virginia?
Respondent, David Duvall, fell over 40 feet to the ground while working for Monster Tree Service of the Upper Ohio Valley (“Monster UOV”) in Marshall County, West Virginia. Monster UOV is a franchisee of Petitioner, Monster Tree Service (“Monster”). Through its website and other media, Monster states that it provides safety training, skills and equipment to its franchisees. Based on those public statements, Respondent filed suit against both Monster entities alleging claims of negligence. Because Monster was not a registered corporation, Respondent served it through the secretary of state who, in turn, forwarded the papers to its president and CEO, Joshua Skolnick.
Monster’s attorney wrote a letter demanding dismissal of the suit and threatening Rule 11 sanctions, but never responded to the complaint. In addition, Monster’s attorney contended that another Monster entity, Monster Franchise, LLC (“Monster Franchise”), is the one that had a contractual relationship with Monster UOV. Respondent then amended his complaint to join Monster Franchise and served Monster’s attorney with a courtesy copy. Again, however, Monster did not answer. Consequently, Respondent moved for default on June 5, 2019, which the court granted.
Thereafter, Monster moved to set aside the default. The trial court denied Monster’s motion on December 17. Monster then filed a petition seeking a writ of prohibition to prevent the court from continuing to exercise jurisdiction.
Petitioner argues that it was never probably served with process because a “duly authorized agent” did not sign the certified mailing. Furthermore, Petitioner did not engage in any of the activities listed in West Virginia’s long arm statute. Even if it had, Respondent failed to establish that Petitioner had minimum contacts with West Virginia sufficient to support the exercise of personal jurisdiction under the due process clause. Finally, Petitioner argues that it demonstrated good cause for its failure to answer (i.e., the jurisdictional issue) and that the trial court erred by denying its motion for relief from default.
Respondent notes that the certified mailing was, in fact, signed and that Petitioner did not produce clear and convincing evidence overcoming the presumption of valid service. Regarding the jurisdictional issue, Petitioner’s statements regarding its active involvement with franchisees, including on-site training and Monster Franchise’s contractual relationship with Respondent, support long arm jurisdiction and minimum contacts. Finally, the trial court correctly denied Petitioner’s motion for relief from the default. Petitioner had actual notice of the complaint and failed to show that it has a meritorious defense.
Obviously, every case involving minimum contact issues turns on its own set of facts. This case appears on the Rule 19 docket so we don’t anticipate any new syllabus law. However, the Supreme Court will undoubtedly provide us with a good refresher on the law regarding both long arm jurisdiction and minimum contacts.