In this case, the plaintiffs, Thomas and Lori Likens, purchased a manufactured home from the writ petitioner, Skyline. AAA Homes actually sold the home that had been manufactured by Skyline. Contending that the home was negligently designed and built, the Likenses sued AAA Homes and Skyline in Circuit Court in Pleasants County, West Virginia. The complaint included claims for breach of expressed and implied warranty, negligent design, negligent construction, breach of contract, destruction of property, and unjust enrichment. Critically, for purposes of this writ proceeding, the Likenses did not file an administrative complaint with the West Virginia Manufactured Housing Construction and Safety Board before filing their action in circuit court.
Skyline and AAA Homes argued that West Virginia Code § 21-9-11a required the Likenses to first file an administrative complaint against Skyline and AAA Homes before they could proceed to a circuit court lawsuit.
This case presented a clear-cut question of law that the Supreme Court of Appeals determined was appropriate to resolve in an interlocutory proceeding. The circuit court had declined to find a filing of an administrative complaint with the Manufactured Housing Board to be mandatory, and the manufacturer and seller of the home sought relief from the decision in prohibition. The Court then examined West Virginia Code § 21-9-11a and relied heavily on the following statutory language for its decision:
“(b) Period of exclusive administrative remedy. — No purchaser or owner of a manufactured home may file a civil action seeking monetary recovery or damages for claims related to or arising out of the manufacture, acquisition, sale or installation of the manufactured home until the expiration of ninety days after the consumer or owner has filed a written complaint with the board.
Opinion at 8.
According to the manufacturer and seller of the home, this language made the filing of an administrative remedy a mandatory prerequisite to a circuit court lawsuit. In the view of the petitioners, the phrasing of the requirement in this part of the statute indicates that until an administrative complaint has been filed, no circuit court lawsuit can be maintained.
The Likenses took the opposite view and suggested that the filing of the administrative complaint was optional and that it was only if (meaning: in the circumstance that), an administrative complaint was filed, that the ninety day period of exclusivity applied at all.
The Supreme Court of Appeals agreed wholeheartedly with the position of the manufacturer and seller of the home at issue. The Court indicated that § 21-9-11a was “clear and unambiguous” and, therefore, merely had to be applied, as opposed to construed. Opinion at 9-10. The holding does not necessarily gain a great deal for the petitioners, inasmuch as the Court makes it clear that once the ninety days have passed after the filing of the administrative complaint, the owner is then entitled to pursue the claims in a civil action. Moreover, the Court specified an exception to the exclusivity of the administrative remedy, even during the ninety-day period, by indicating that a contention on the part of the purchaser or owner of the manufactured home that they are seeking equitable relief “to prevent or address an immediate risk of personal injury or property damage” is excused from the administrative filing requirement and may pursue their cause of action immediately in circuit court. Id. at 12.
This case, while fairly clear-cut given the legislative language cited by the Court, and low impact in light of the limited exclusivity available under the Court’s interpretation of the Act, is nonetheless an example of a major trend in how lawsuits are defended in West Virginia and nationwide. Increasingly, defendants in cases of product liability, negligence, consumer fraud and other areas of traditional tort liability, are turning to the government’s regulating bodies for whatever the subject matter of the lawsuit might be and contending that rather than protecting the public from negligently manufactured homes, dangerous drugs, environmental degradation, usurious interest rates or consumer fraud, what those regulating bodies actually protect is the regulated parties themselves. In a case such as the Likenses’ where a mere stay of the claim is involved, the doctrine does not have very much effect on the substantive rights of the citizens. But where courts go further and determine that the jurisdiction of a government agency is exclusive or preemptive, vis-à-vis the power of the circuit court, the result can be that a statute passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor in order to protect the public, in fact, does just the opposite, taking away the citizens’ right to sue in court and pursue their remedies before an impartial jury and a duly elected judge.