Sergeant Loses Lawsuit Over Batmobile

A mobile office for the anti-drunk driving unit of the West Virginia State Police is known as the “Batmobile.” On September 20, 2005, Sergeant David Hawkins was working as a sergeant in the Batmobile. When Hawkins was routinely exiting the Batmobile with a cape slung over his shoulder, the cape caught on a hook-shaped latch on the vehicle, yanking him backwards and herniating three discs in his back. Hawkins required emergency surgery, and now has permanent nerve damage. He was forced to take a disability retirement from the State Police.

Hawkins applied for and received benefits from the West Virginia State Police “Death, Disability and Retirement Fund” (DDR fund) for his injury, but also filed a lawsuit against the Department alleging that the Department’s negligence in failing to repair or replace the door latch had contributed to his injuries. The lawsuit squarely faced the West Virginia Supreme Court with the question as to whether the State of West Virginia was immune from negligence lawsuits filed by its employees for injuries they had suffered on the job.

Under West Virginia law, employers who are subject to the workers’ compensation system “who subscribe and pay into the workers’ compensation fund the premiums provided by the law or who elect to make direct payments of compensation as provided by the law” are not liable for negligence lawsuits filed by employees.”

The Court found that the law immunized the Department from negligence lawsuits. The Court concluded that the DDR fund was intended to be “a comprehensive system of compensation and the Legislature never intended for State troopers to be covered under the Workers’ Compensation Fund. Since 1919, when the Legislature first required state agencies to pay premiums into the workers’ compensation system, the Legislature has never budgeted funds for the State Police to pay premiums on behalf of its uniformed troopers. Instead, the Legislature created, and has continuously budgeted funds for, the DDR fund. A uniformed State trooper who receives benefits from the DDR fund is barred by the West Virginia code from bringing a negligence action against his or her employer.”

The Court left standing Hawkins’ lawsuit against the manufacturer of the Batmobile that the negligent design of the door latch system caused Hawkins’ injuries.

Hawkins v. West Virginia Department of Public Safety, 2008 WL 5192120 (W.Va. 2008).

This article appears in the February 2009 issue