Supreme Court Affirms Circuit Court’s Broad Discretion

On June 21, 2013, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia issued a Memorandum Decision in Moore v. Allstate Insurance Co., et al.(No. 12-0288) [enhanced version available to subscribers], affirming a trial court’s discretion when instructing the jury, permitting expert witnesses, and bifurcating punitive damages. In this case, the Moores suffered a fire loss to their home and were unable to agree upon a repair estimate with Allstate. When Allstate demanded arbitration, the Moores refused and filed suit for bad faith. The case went to trial and the jury found in favor of Allstate. On appeal, the Moores challenged a jury instruction on spoliation, which stated that because the Moores demolished their home without Allstate’s consent, the jury could infer that this evidence would have been unfavorable to the Moores. The Moores also challenged an instruction that stated: “The Court instructs the jury that if you find the other party failed to engage in the appraisal process pursuant to the terms in the insurance policy, then you may find that party breached the insurance contract.” Given the discretion afforded a trial court, the Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court’s decision that these instructions did not merit a new trial.

The Moores also contended that the circuit court erred in allowing the testimony of Allstate’s claims handling expert, a practicing attorney. The Court found that the witness “... is an attorney who has extensive experience in the insurance industry with substantial knowledge of claims handling practices;” therefore, the circuit court properly exercised its discretion in allowing his testimony. See Syl. Pt. 5, Gentry v. Mangum, 195 W.Va. 512, 466 S.E.2d 171 (1995) [enhanced version available to subscribers].

Finally, the Court found no merit in the Moores’ argument that the circuit court erred in bifurcating the punitive damages aspect of the case. The Moore decision once again illustrates the Court’s hesitancy to disturb the circuit court’s broad discretion and authority to manage and control its proceedings.