22 May Virginia: Car Accident – a Lawyer’s Plea
Hawthorne v. VanMarter, 279 Va. 566, 571 (2010) involved a vehicle accident in which a Roanoke County Policy Department Officer allegedly caused wrongful death and personal injuries to other motorists. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld grant of sovereign immunity for ordinary negligence based on Defendant’s uncontradicted testimony and the judge’s finding at evidentiary Plea hearing that he was “pursuing a speeding vehicle at the time of the accident,” an act involving judgment and discretion.
“The party asserting a plea in bar bears the burden of proof on the issue presented,” opined the Virginia Supreme Court in the Hawthorne car accident case. “The issue raised by a plea in bar may be submitted to the circuit court for decision based on a discrete body of facts identified by the parties through their pleadings, or developed through the presentation of evidence supporting or opposing the plea. If the parties present evidence on the plea ore tenus, the circuit court’s factual findings are accorded the weight of a jury finding and will not be disturbed on appeal unless they are plainly wrong or without evidentiary support.” Id. at 577 (citations omitted).
“[I]f the facts are disputed and no demand for a jury is made, the ‘whole matter of law and fact’ may be decided by the court,” continued Hawthorne in the car accident appeal. “By submitting the entire decision on the plea in bar to the circuit court judge, Guthrie effectively agreed to have the judge decide all legal and factual questions underlying the single issue whether sovereign immunity shielded VanMarter from Guthrie’s allegations of ordinary negligence. Thus, we hold that Guthrie waived his right to have the jury at trial decide the factual issues pertaining to the question of sovereign immunity. Additionally, we note that the circuit court’s decision declining to reopen the issues pertaining to its sovereign immunity holding fully reflected the function of the plea in bar, which is to narrow the litigation by resolving an issue that will determine whether a plaintiff may proceed to trial on a particular cause of action. This function would have been undermined in the present case had the circuit court set aside its ruling and permitted Guthrie an opportunity to relitigate the issues already addressed without objection at the hearing on the plea in bar.” Id. at 578 (citations omitted).