The appellate standard of review for judgment as a matter of law in a bench trial, made pursuant to W.Va. R. Civ. P. 52, is de novo. On appeal, the reviewing court will sustain the granting of such a judgment law when only one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict can be reached.
The buyer entered into a contract to purchase land from the sellers, who were experiencing financial difficulties and desired to sell the property in order to alleviate their debt. The lawyer prepared the contract and was to obtain releases of two deeds of trust under which the land was encumbered. The closing was to be held on or before September 5, 2002, but because the lawyer did not secure the releases, closing was postponed. Thereafter, the sellers notified the buyer that they no longer wished to sell. The buyer then filed suit for specific performance. The sellers then conveyed a tract of their land to the lawyer and his wife, and the buyer added the lawyer and his wife as defendants. The trial court entered a directed verdict in favor of the lawyer and his wife, finding that the sellers' performance should be excused as impossible because they were unable to secure the releases. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.
Was the trial court's directed verdict proper?
The Court held that the sellers had not established that their performance had been rendered impracticable, noting that their delay in seeking the releases could not be used as an excuse for nonperformance. It held: Whatever meaning is given to the term "impracticability," whether it be objective or subjective, and even though it be used to include varying degrees of difficulty and expense, courts usually hold that the supervening event does not excuse a promisor from the contractual duty if the promisor willfully brought about the supervening event, or if the promisor could have foreseen and avoided it by the exercise of reasonable diligence. When one makes a contractual promise, the legal duty thereby created implies at least a reasonable degree of effort and diligence. If the exercise of such diligence would have resulted in performance, the promisor cannot say that performance was prevented by supervening impossibility. It was prevented by the promisor's own willful or negligent conduct or omission. Performance may have eventually become impossible, but the promisor is responsible for causing the impossibility.
It further held that the judgment should be reviewed de novo.