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.
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?
The Court decided on a 4-1 vote, that Respondent, Blankenship, could not sustain a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Under Heldreth, a person who witnesses injury to another can recover damages for emotional distress, but only when the bystander is “closely related” to the one who is injured. Canvassing cases from across the country, the Court noted that “the vast majority of courts is steadfast in limiting the phrase ‘closely related’ to marital and blood relationships.” Having a close friendship or working relationship is not enough to warrant a recovery. The Court held in Syllabus Point 4:
“In West Virginia, an employee cannot recover damages for emotional distress after witnessing an injury to an unrelated co-worker under a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress.”
However, to the extent Blankenship pled a traditional negligence claim, Heldreth did not bar recovery. Blankenship’s complaint alleged that he suffered both physical and emotion injuries as a result of “having to flee for his very life from [the] methane explosion.” Because the factual basis for this general negligence claim was different from his bystander claim, the trial court correctly denied Petitioner’s motion to dismiss.
Justice Workman dissented, taking issue with the Court’s erroneous and even “haphazard” application of the law.
The syllabus from Heldreth said that recovery in bystander cases was limited to those involving individuals who were “closely related.” In dicta, Heldreth said this would include anyone enjoying a “close marital or familial relationship.” In this case, however, the Court injected confusion and narrowed the scope of those entitled to recovery. The Court now says that recovery must be premised on “blood or marriage.” In so doing, the Court has eliminated other family members who could have recovered under Heldreth, including “an in-law, step relative, or adopted family member.”
Beyond that, Justice Workmen criticized the Court for creating a hard-and-fast rule that “elevates formal relationships over real ones.” Where the facts “support an emotional bond equivalent to that which one would expect of close familial relations, there is no justification for denying the opportunity to present the claim to a jury for determination.”
Unfortunately, this case represents yet another narrowing of victim rights. As Justice Workman observed, we cannot afford to sacrifice victim rights simply for the sake of creating a rule that is easy to apply. In its zeal to prevent the possibility of fraudulent claims, the majority has slammed shut the courthouse door for many other victims who are deserving of a legal remedy.