Justia Injury Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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Appellant Joan Grove was awarded a jury verdict of $250,000.00 in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, in a personal injury action against Appellee, Port Authority of Allegheny County. On appeal, the Commonwealth Court vacated the award of damages and remanded for a new trial on the basis that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on negligence per se. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to determine whether the trial court’s failure to give a negligence per se charge, where the jury nevertheless found Grove negligent, amounted to error because the negligence per se charge was relevant to apportionment of factual cause. The Supreme Court concluded it did. Because the jury found Grove negligent, any perceived error in failing to instruct on negligence per se was harmless error. Importantly, the Commonwealth Court did not make a finding of prejudice in its harmless error analysis; “it merely opined the proposed instructions could have influenced the jury. The standard is not that the omitted instructions could have influenced the jury. Prejudice is required. A lack of any prejudice analysis undermines the Commonwealth Court’s conclusion that the error was not harmless.” Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s order reversing the trial court and granting Port Authority a new trial. This matter was remanded to the Commonwealth Court for disposition of Grove’s cross-appeal. View "Grove v. Port Authority of Allegheny County" on Justia Law

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Susan Yanakos suffered from a genetic condition called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (AATD). In the summer of 2003, one of Susan’s physicians, Dr. Amadeo Marcos, advised her that she needed a liver transplant due to the progression of her AATD. Because Susan was not a candidate for a cadaver liver, her son Christopher volunteered to donate a lobe of his liver to his mother. Christopher advised one of his mother’s physicians that several of his family members suffered from AATD, but that he was unsure whether he did as well. Additional laboratory tests for Christopher were ordered, but Christopher was never informed him of the results, which allegedly showed that Christopher had AATD and was not a candidate for liver donation. One month after Christopher’s consultation with physicians, surgery proceeded; a portion of Christopher’s liver was removed and transplanted into Susan. More than twelve years later, Christopher, Susan, and Susan’s husband, William Yanakos sued UPMC, and the doctors involved, raising claims for battery/lack of informed consent, medical malpractice, and loss of consortium. The Yanakoses alleged that they did not discover Appellees’ negligence until eleven years after the transplant surgery, when additional testing revealed that Susan still had AATD, which the transplant should have eliminated. In this appeal by allowance, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether the seven-year statute of repose in Section 1303.513(a) of the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Act (MCARE Act) comported with Article I, Section 11 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Because the Court concluded the seven-year statute of repose was not substantially related to an important government interest, it reversed the Superior Court’s order affirming the trial court’s grant of judgment on the pleadings and remanded for further proceedings. View "Yanakos. v. UPMC, et al" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit certified a question of law to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court regarding whether an increase to the limits of underinsured motorist (“UIM”) coverage for multiple vehicles that are insured under an existing policy constitutes a “purchase” for purposes of Subsection 1738(c) of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (“MVFRL”). Michelle Barnard purchased a personal automobile policy from Travelers Home and Marine Insurance Company (“Travelers”) to insure her two vehicles. As part of this policy, Barnard purchased UIM coverage in the amount of $50,000 per vehicle. Barnard waived stacking of her UIM coverage limits. Two years later, Barnard increased the UIM coverage limit on each of her vehicles to $100,000. Barnard did not execute a new stacking waiver at that time. Then several more years later, Barnard was involved in a motor vehicle accident with an underinsured motorist. When Barnard sought UIM benefits from Travelers, Travelers offered her $100,000 based upon the UIM coverage limit on one of her vehicles. Barnard filed a complaint for declaratory judgment, seeking $200,000 in stacked UIM benefits. Travelers removed the case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Based upon the plain language of Subsection 1738(c), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court answered the Third Circuit's question in the affirmative: therefore, an increase of UIM coverage under circumstances as was presented here triggered an insurance company’s statutory obligation to offer an insured the opportunity to waive stacking of the new, aggregate amount of UIM coverage. View "Barnard v. Travelers Home, et al" on Justia Law

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Betty and Curtis Shiflett sued Lehigh Valley Hospital and Lehigh Valley Health Network, Inc. (collectively, the “Hospital”) for negligence in connection with injuries Betty suffered while in the hospital for knee surgery. The jury returned a verdict for the Shifletts, awarding them $2,391,620 in damages. The Superior Court ruled that one of the claims upon which the Shifletts prevailed at trial was time-barred and should not have been submitted to the jury. Finding that some portion of the jury’s damage award may have been based upon the time-barred claim, the intermediate appellate court remanded the case for a new trial on damages. After its review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court erred in this regard, as pursuant to the “general-verdict rule” adopted by Halper v. Jewish Family & Children’s Services, 963 A.2d 1282 (Pa. 2009), the Hospital waived any entitlement to a new trial on damages when it failed to request a special interrogatory on the verdict sheet that would have permitted the jury to allocate the damages awarded on each claim. View "Shiflett v. Lehigh Valley Health" on Justia Law

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In 2013, Rachel Dixon was driving a car owned by her boyfriend, Rene Oriental-Guillermo (“Policyholder”), when she was involved in an accident with a vehicle in which Priscila Jimenez was a passenger, and which was owned by Iris Velazquez, and operated by Alli Licona-Avila. At the time of the accident, Dixon resided with Policyholder, who had purchased a personal automobile insurance policy (“Policy”) for his vehicle through Safe Auto Insurance Company (“Safe Auto”). The Policy contained an unlisted resident driver exclusion (“URDE”), which excluded from coverage any individuals who lived with, but were not related to, the policyholder, and whom the policyholder did not specifically list as an additional driver on the insurance policy. Jimenez and her husband Luis (collectively, “Appellants”) filed a personal injury lawsuit against Dixon, Policyholder, and Licona-Avila. On May 13, 2015, Safe Auto filed a complaint against Dixon, Policyholder, and Appellants, seeking a declaratory judgment regarding the enforceability of the URDE with respect to Dixon. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Safe Auto, finding the URDE unambiguous, valid, and enforceable, and concluding that Safe Auto had no duty under the Policy to defend or indemnify Dixon in the underlying personal injury lawsuit. Appellants timely appealed to the Superior Court, arguing: (1) the trial court erred in holding the URDE was valid and enforceable; (2) that the URDE violated the provisions of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (“MVFRL”); and (3) that the URDE violated public policy. The Superior Court affirmed the order of the trial court in a divided, published opinion. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concurred the URDE at issue in this case was enforceable, and affirmed the Superior Court. View "Safe Auto v. Oriental-Guillermo" on Justia Law

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Appellees Augustus Feleccia and Justin Resch were student athletes who played football at Lackawanna Junior College (Lackawanna), a nonprofit junior college. Lackawanna had customarily employed two athletic trainers to support the football program. The Athletic Director, Kim Mecca, had to fill two trainer vacancies in the summer of 2009. She received applications from Kaitlin Coyne, and Alexis Bonisese. At the time she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position, Coyne had not yet passed the athletic trainer certification exam, and was therefore not licensed by the Board. Bonisese was also not licensed, having failed the exam on her first attempt, and still awaiting the results of her second attempt when she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position. Nevertheless, Lackawanna hired both Coyne and Bonisese in August 2009 with the expectation they would serve as athletic trainers, pending receipt of their exam results, and both women signed “athletic trainer” job descriptions. After starting their employment at Lackawanna, Coyne and Bonisese both learned they did not pass the athletic trainer certification exam. Mecca retitled the positions held by Coyne and Bonisese from “athletic trainers” to “first responders.” However, neither Coyne nor Bonisese executed new job descriptions, despite never achieving the credentials included in the athletic trainer job descriptions they did sign. Appellants were also aware the qualifications of their new hires was called into question by their college professors and clinic supervisors. In 2010, appellees participated in the first day of spring contact football practice, engaging in a variation of the tackling drill known as the “Oklahoma Drill.” While participating in the drill, both Resch and Feleccia suffered injuries. Resch attempted to make a tackle and suffered a T-7 vertebral fracture. Resch was unable to get up off the ground and Coyne attended to him before he was transported to the hospital in an ambulance. Later that same day, Feleccia was injured while attempting to make his first tackle, experiencing a “stinger” in his right shoulder, i.e., experiencing numbness, tingling and a loss of mobility in his right shoulder. Bonisese attended Feleccia and cleared him to continue practice “if he was feeling better.” In this discretionary appeal arising from the dismissal of appellees’ personal injury claims on summary judgment, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether the superior court erred in: (1) finding a duty of care; and (2) holding a pre-injury waiver signed by student athletes injured while playing football was not enforceable against claims of negligence, gross negligence, and recklessness. After careful review, the Court affirmed the superior court’s order only to the extent it reversed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment on the claims of gross negligence and recklessness. The Case was remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Feleccia v. Lackawanna College, et al." on Justia Law

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A jury awarded Appellant Elliot Menkowitz, M.D. $1,000,000 in compensatory damages in his defamation suit against Appellees, Peerless Publications, Inc. (“Peerless”) and Eric Engquist. Dr. Menkowitz began his employment as an orthopedic surgeon at Pottstown Memorial Medical Center (“PMMC”) in the early 1970s. At PMMC, Dr. Menkowitz was accused of verbally abusing colleagues and staff and engaging in other inappropriate behavior in front of patients. In April 1996, Dr. Menkowitz was informed that due to his inappropriate conduct, PMMC’s Medical Executive Committee and the Medical Committee of the Board had voted to suspend him or allow him to take a voluntary leave to address his behavioral problems. Dr. Menkowitz then disclosed that he had recently been diagnosed with ADHD and suggested that he might be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In light of this information, PMMC did not suspend Dr. Menkowitz or require him to take a leave of absence, but issued a written warning explaining that should Dr. Menkowitz’s misbehavior continue, PMMC would summarily suspend all of his clinical privileges. Less than a year later, based upon continuing behavioral issues, PMMC suspended Dr. Menkowitz for six months. The suspension did not last for the full six months, however, as PMMC lifted it approximately one month later when Dr. Menkowitz filed suit against PMMC in federal court for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. In April 1997, the Mercury, a local Pottstown newspaper published by Peerless, ran a front-page article about Dr. Menkowitz regarding his suspension. After reading the article, Dr. Menkowitz "fell into a severe depression. Dr. Menkowitz’s treatment for this depression included multiple medications that caused fasciculations (tremors) in his arms and hands, impairing Dr. Menkowitz’s ability to perform surgery." The Superior Court found that the trial court erred in failing to enter notwithstanding the verdict ("JNOV") in Appellees’ favor and vacated the award of compensatory damages. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to consider whether in so doing, the Superior Court failed to exercise appropriate deference to the fact-finder when reviewing a JNOV ruling, as explained in Joseph v. Scranton Times, L.P., 129 A.3d 404 (Pa. 2015) (“Joseph III”). The Supreme Court determined the Superior Court failed to do so, vacated its judgment and remanded the case to that court for further proceedings. View "Menkowitz. v. Peerless Publications" on Justia Law

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This appeal required the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to determine whether a “household vehicle exclusion” contained in a motor vehicle insurance policy violated Section 1738 of the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (“MVFRL”), 75 Pa.C.S. 1738, because the exclusion impermissibly acted as a de facto waiver of stacked uninsured and underinsured motorist (“UM” and “UIM,” respectively) coverages. In 2012, Appellant Brian Gallagher was riding his motorcycle when William Stouffer ran a stop sign in his pickup truck, colliding with Gallagher’s motorcycle, causing Gallagher to suffer severe injuries. At the time of the accident, Gallagher had two insurance policies with GEICO; one included $50,000 of UIM coverage, insured only Gallagher’s motorcycle; the second insured Gallagher’s two automobiles and provided for $100,000 of UIM coverage for each vehicle. Gallagher opted and paid for stacked UM and UIM coverage when purchasing both policies. Stouffer’s insurance coverage was insufficient to compensate Gallagher in full. Consequently, Gallagher filed claims with GEICO seeking stacked UIM benefits under both of his GEICO policies. GEICO paid Gallagher the $50,000 policy limits of UIM coverage available under the Motorcycle Policy, it denied his claim for stacked UIM benefits under the Automobile Policy. GEICO based its decision on a household vehicle exclusion found in an amendment to the Automobile Policy. The exclusion states as follows: “This coverage does not apply to bodily injury while occupying or from being struck by a vehicle owned or leased by you or a relative that is not insured for Underinsured Motorists Coverage under this policy.” According to Gallagher, by denying him stacked UIM coverage based upon the household vehicle exclusion, GEICO was depriving him of the stacked UIM coverage for which he paid. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held the household vehicle exclusion violated the MVFRL, and vacated the Superior Court’s judgment, reversed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of GEICO, and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Gallagher v. GEICO" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether an exception to the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act applied ― the real property exception to governmental immunity ― and, in particular, whether the absence of padding on a gym wall, into which a student ran during gym class, causing injury, fell within the exception. In 2012, then-nine-year-old Jarrett Brewington ran in a relay race during gym class at Walter G. Smith Elementary School in Philadelphia. While Jarrett was running, he tripped and fell, causing him to propel into the wall at the end of the gym, hit and cut his head, and lose consciousness. No padding covered the gym wall, which was made of concrete. Jarrett was later diagnosed with a concussion, was absent from school for one to two months after the incident, and continued experiencing headaches and memory problems years later. In 2013, Jarrett’s mother, Syeta Brewington, brought an action against Walter G. Smith Elementary School and the School District of Philadelphia (collectively, the “School”), alleging Jarrett’s injuries occurred because of a defective and dangerous condition of the premises, namely, the concrete gym wall, and that the School was negligent in failing to install padded safety mats to cushion the wall. In response, the School filed, inter alia, a motion for summary judgment, raising the defense of governmental immunity, and claiming that the real property exception to governmental immunity under the Act did not apply. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found the lack of padding of a gym wall could constitute negligence in the care, custody, and control of real property, and, thus, fell within the Act’s real estate exception. View "Brewington v. Phila. Sch. Dist." on Justia Law

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This appeal presented an issue of whether a workers’ compensation insurance carrier could bring a third-party action against an alleged tortfeasor on behalf of an injured employee to recoup the amount paid in workers’ compensation benefits where the employee did not independently sue the tortfeasor, did not join in the insurer’s action, and did not assign her cause of action to the insurer. In 2013, Chunli Chen was standing in the parking lot of Thrifty Rental Car when she was struck by a rental vehicle operated by Kafumba Kamara. When the accident occurred, Chen was in the course of her employment with Reliance Sourcing, Inc., which maintained workers’ compensation coverage through The Hartford Insurance Group (“Appellee” or “Insurer”). Insurer had paid $59,424.71 in medical and wage benefits to Chen pursuant to her employer’s workers’ compensation insurance policy. Chen did not seek to recover damages for her injuries by filing an action against Kamara and/or Thrifty Rental Car (collectively referred to herein as “Appellants” or “Tortfeasors”) and did not assign her cause of action against Tortfeasors to Insurer. In 2015, when the two-year statute of limitations was about to expire on Chen’s cause of action, Insurer sought to effectuate its subrogation right under Section 319 of the Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”) by filing a praecipe for a writ of summons against Tortfeasors. “Reaffirming the well-settled proposition that the right of action against the tortfeasor remains in the injured employee,” the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that, unless the injured employee assigns her cause of action or voluntarily joins the litigation as a party plaintiff, the insurer may not enforce its statutory right to subrogation by filing an action directly against the tortfeasor. Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the Superior Court’s judgment and reinstated that of the trial court, which sustained the preliminary objections filed by the tortfeasor and dismissed the insurer’s complaint with prejudice. View "Hartford Ins. Grp. v. Kamara" on Justia Law