Is the relationship of a co-worker in an underground coal mine sufficient, under Heldreth, to satisfy the “closely related” requirement for the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress?
Charles Blankenship worked as an underground miner in a coal mine in Wyoming County. On July 29, 2016, Blankenship and a fellow coal miner, Donald Workman, were working together. Blankenship was assigned by a foreman to repair loose grading on a shaft pump. According to Blankenship, he had never been instructed how to check for gas in a shaft pump installation. Blankenship checked the gas at eye level, but did not obtain a gas reading from within the shaft itself. Thereafter, a gas explosion occurred in the shaft and Workman’s body was thrown 15 feet into the air. Workman received serious burns and other injuries leading to his death a few days later. Blankenship was unharmed, but witnessed Workman who was “in extreme agony and screaming for help.”
Blankenship filed this case against two companies that played a part in supplying gas detection equipment to miners and training them. Blankenship’s claim is for negligent infliction of emotional destress under Heldreth v. Marrs, 188 W.Va. 481, 425 S.E.2d 157 (1992). Petitioners filed a motion to dismiss alleging that Blankenship could not satisfy the elements of Heldreth because Workman was not closely related by blood or marriage. The trial court denied Petitioner’s motion, finding that coal miners in West Virginia “are not only co-workers, but also members of a close knit ‘mining family’ that transcends blood ties.” Petitioners now seek a writ of prohibition.
Petitioners argue that prohibition is a proper remedy under State ex rel. Hoover v. Berger, 199 W.Va. 12, 483 S.E.2d 12 (1996). Regardless of whether all five factors under Berger are met, the existence of “clear error as a matter of law” is to be given “substantial weight.” Thus, prohibition is appropriate in this case. According to Petitioners, the “closely related” requirement in Heldreth “is grounded in principles of foreseeability.” Even though Heldreth did not expressly say so in the syllabus, the “closely related” requirement was defined within the text of the opinion as a “close marital or familial relationship.” Cases applying Heldreth have required a relationship by blood or marriage. Expanding the reach of Heldreth beyond that would “expand the scope of potential liability for emotional distress in a significant and unprecedented way.”
Even though Judge McGraw is technically treated as respondent in this prohibition proceeding, the opposition brief is, in fact, written by attorneys representing Blankenship. Blankenship’s brief chronicles the expansion of liability for emotional distress in West Virginia, noting that a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress can be brought so long as the facts are “sufficient to guarantee that the emotional damages claim is not spurious.” Marlin v. Bill Rich Construction, 198 W.Va. 635, 482 S.E.2d 620 (1996). Blankenship agrees that the key element for liability under Heldreth is foreseeability. Heldreth cited an Ohio case, Paugh v. Hanks, 6 Ohio St.3d 72, 451 N.E.2d 759 (1983), which noted that “a strict blood relationship between the accident victim and the plaintiff-bystander is not necessarily required.” Instead, the nature of the relationship must be determined on a case by case basis. Here, Blankenship and Workman were bonded together as “friends and fellow coal miners” who worked closely together in the face of constant danger. Thus, the trial court correctly held that Blankenship stated a claim under West Virginia law.
The law governing emotional distress claims in West Virginia has been constantly evolving. It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court applies a hard-and-fast rule here (like the “blood or marriage” test advocated for by Petitioners) or, instead, takes a broader case-by-case approach similar to what Ohio adopted in Paugh. More broadly, the Court’s opinion here will be an indicator of whether it is inclined to continue expanding opportunities for recovery under the emotional distress line of cases.