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West Virginia Supreme Court Emphasizes Heightened Pleading Standard in Cases Where Qualified Immunity Is Applicable

The 2017 case West Virginia Board of Education v. Zelda Croaff featured the state Board of Education (WVBE) appealing the decision of the circuit court to deny its motion of dismissal of the underlying case that alleged a cause of action for negligence resulting in personal injury.

The West Virginia Supreme Court agreed with WVBE, finding the circuit court “clearly erred in failing to recognize and apply developed principles of the law regarding the application of qualified immunity” in its denial of the WVBE’s motion of dismissal.

Case background

Croaff filed her initial complaint in January 2015. She alleged a workplace injury occurred on October 16, 2014, while she was working as a cook at Mingo Central High School (MCHS). She claimed to have suffered an electric shock after touching a malfunctioning freezer door. She initially filed claims against both Statewide Heating and Air Conditioning Services, Inc. (which serviced the freezer) and the Mingo County Board of Education (MCBE) for failure to properly inspect and maintain the freezer.

The Circuit Court of Mingo County entered an order dismissing the claim against MCBE in March 2015. The claim was amended in August 2014, substituting the WVBE as a defendant.

Croaff claimed the freezer did not seal properly when the door was shut, causing condensation to accumulate inside and resulting in moisture forming where the electrical panel of the freezer was located. The claim states that a “naked” wire inside the panel caused the door to become electrified.

WVBE filed a motion to dismiss that the circuit court denied. The circuit court stated, among other issues, that because WVBE was not Croaff’s employer, it did not qualify for qualified immunity because it was a State agency rather than an individual.

The appeals court found the circuit court erred in its decision that qualified immunity was not available to WVBE as a state agency. Instead, it ruled that West Virginia law allows for state agencies to be protected through qualified immunity, meaning the court should have granted WBE’s motion to dismiss.

To learn more about complex employment law issues in West Virginia, work with a dedicated West Virginia employment attorney at Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, PLLC. Call us at 304-344-0100 or contact us online to schedule an initial consultation.

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