Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

by
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

by
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

by
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

by
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

by
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review in this matter to determine whether an employer has a legal duty to use reasonable care to safeguard its employees’ sensitive personal information that the employer stores on an internet-accessible computer system. Barbara Dittman, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated (collectively, Employees), filed the operative class action complaint in this matter against UPMC d/b/a the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and UPMC McKeesport (collectively, UPMC), alleging that a data breach had occurred through which the personal and financial information, including names, birth dates, social security numbers, addresses, tax forms, and bank account information of all 62,000 UPMC employees and former employees was accessed and stolen from UPMC’s computer systems. Employees further alleged that the stolen data, which consisted of information UPMC required Employees to provide as a condition of their employment, was used to file fraudulent tax returns on behalf of the victimized Employees, resulting in actual damages. Employees asserted a negligence claim and breach of implied contract claim against UPMC. The Supreme Court held an employer has a legal duty to exercise reasonable care to safeguard its employees’ sensitive personal information stored by the employer on an internet- accessible computer system. Furthermore, the Court held that, under Pennsylvania’s economic loss doctrine, recovery for purely pecuniary damages is permissible under a negligence theory provided that the plaintiff can establish the defendant’s breach of a legal duty arising under common law that is independent of any duty assumed pursuant to contract. As the Superior Court came to the opposite conclusions, the Supreme Court vacated its judgment. View "Dittman v. UPMC" on Justia Law

by
In this premises liability case, John Stapas sued Giant Eagle and related entities (collectively Giant Eagle) for injuries he sustained at a GetGo convenience store. At the time of the incident, Stapas was 17 years old and worked full-time as a busboy and dishwasher at a restaurant, earning $8.25 per hour plus $14.00-$20.00 per shift in tips. In 2007, Stapas went to GetGo after his restaurant shift. At GetGo, he was talking to his friend, Crystal Stogden, who worked the night shift there. Minutes after Stapas arrived, a customer exiting the store held the door open for Brandon McCallister to enter. McCallister had been banned from patronizing that GetGo location. McCallister, who appeared intoxicated, started arguing with Stogden about his ban. Stapas was not initially involved in the argument. After about one minute, Stapas intervened to attempt to diffuse the argument and protect Stogden and another female employee, LaToya Stevens. Eventually, Stapas, McCallister, Stogden, and Stevens exited the store into the parking lot area. Outside the store, McCallister’s friend was waiting for him. Stapas told Stogden to get back inside the store, and Stevens remained outside. McCallister continued screaming at the employees as Stapas followed him to his vehicle, insisting that he leave. As they approached McCallister’s car, McCallister initiated a physical fight with Stapas. During the fight, McCallister pulled out a gun, which he had concealed on his person, and shot Stapas four times. Stapas missed six weeks of work while recovering from the injuries, and he continued to have daily stomach pain from the shooting. In this appeal by allowance, we consider whether Giant Eagle was required to object to the jury’s verdict awarding future lost wages to preserve its challenge to the verdict, which Giant Eagle labeled as a weight of the evidence challenge in its post-trial motion. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that an objection to a jury’s verdict premised on trial errors, correctable before the jury is discharged, must be raised before the jury is discharged. Accordingly, the Court reversed the Superior Court’s order awarding Giant Eagle a new trial on damages. View "Stapas. v. Giant Eagle" on Justia Law

by
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal in this matter to consider whether the Commonwealth Court erred in holding that the involuntary movement of a vehicle did not constitute operation of a motor vehicle for purposes of the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity under 42 Pa.C.S. 8542(b)(1). Appellant Victoria Balentine was the widow of Edwin Omar Medina-Flores, a contractor for Metra Industries (Metra), which was hired by the Chester Water Authority (CWA) to rehabilitate a section of its water distribution system. Medina-Flores was inside a four-foot by four-foot ditch located on the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the curb on the southbound side of the road, when Charles Mathues, an inspector for CWA, approached the worksite in a southerly direction and parked his CWA vehicle, with the engine running, 10 to 15 feet from the ditch. Mathues activated the four-way flashers and the amber strobe light on the roof of the vehicle, which he then exited. He walked to the front of the vehicle where he laid some blueprints on the hood. Approximately five minutes later, a vehicle owned by Michael Roland and driven by Wyatt Roland struck the rear of the CWA vehicle, causing it to move forward. Mathues was rolled up onto the hood and thrown into the roadway. The right front bumper of the CWA vehicle then struck Medina-Flores as he stood in the ditch. The undercarriage dragged him out of the ditch, pinning Medina-Flores under the vehicle when it came to a stop. Medina-Flores died as a result of the injuries he sustained. Mathues was also injured in the accident. The Supreme Court determined movement of a vehicle, whether voluntary or involuntary, was not required by the statutory language of the vehicle liability exception, and reversed the order of the Commonwealth Court, thereby allowing this matter to proceed in the trial court. View "Balentine v. Chester Water Auth, et al" on Justia Law

by
In a negligence case, Helen Jones sought recovery for injuries sustained when a vehicle driven by Ron Ott rear-ended Jones’ car while Ott was working for Eastern Elevator Service and Sales Company. Prior to trial, Jones filed proposed points for charge with the prothonotary. Of particular relevance here, Jones filed three proposed instructions related to negligence per se. After trial had commenced, but before the case went to the jury, the trial court held a charge conference. Ultimately, the trial court’s charge to the jury did not include an instruction concerning negligence per se. Notably, after charging the jurors, the trial court asked counsel whether there was anything with respect to the charge that either party wanted to put on the record. Jones’ lawyer responded: “I have no issues with the charge, Your Honor.” The jury returned a verdict in favor of Ott. Jones filed a post-trial motion contending that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury as to negligence per se. Ott responded that Jones had waived her jury-charge challenge by failing to lodge a timely objection at trial. Jones replied that she had preserved her claim by docketing written proposed points for charge and raising the issue in a post-trial motion. The trial court denied Jones’ motion, and Jones appealed to the Superior Court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review in this case in order to clarify the methods by which one may preserve a challenge to a trial court’s jury instructions in accordance with Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 227.1. Because Jones failed to lodge a contemporaneous objection to the trial court’s instructions at trial or to interpose any objection when invited by the trial court to do so, her challenge was deemed waived. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Superior Court. View "Jones v Ott" on Justia Law

by
Fu Xiang Lin began performing remodeling work for Eastern Taste, a restaurant that had not yet opened for business. Lin and three other individuals were hired by Lin’s sister-in-law, Sai Zheng Zheng, who was the owner of Eastern Taste. They did not sign a written contract, but Lin was to be paid for his services on a per diem basis. Lin had worked in remodeling for fifteen years, and he was the most experienced individual involved in the project. Although Wang purchased the materials necessary for the project, Lin brought and used his own tools. Lin was hired only to complete the remodeling work. While repairing a chimney, Lin fell from a beam and landed on a cement floor, suffering serious injuries. In addition to numerous bone fractures, the impact caused trauma to Lin’s spinal cord, rendering him paraplegic. Lin filed a workers’ compensation claim petition against Eastern Taste. Because Eastern Taste did not maintain workers’ compensation insurance, Lin additionally filed a petition for benefits from the Uninsured Employers Guaranty Fund (the “Fund”). Both Eastern Taste and the Fund filed answers denying, inter alia, the existence of an employment relationship. In this appeal, the issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether, pursuant to the Construction Workplace Misclassification Act (“CWMA” or “the Act”), Lin was eligible for compensation under the Workers’ Compensation Act. The Commonwealth Court determined that the CWMA was inapplicable under these circumstances, that the claimant otherwise failed to establish that he was an employee of the restaurant, and that he accordingly was ineligible for workers’ compensation benefits. Finding no error, the Supreme Court affirmed the order of the Commonwealth Court. View "Dept. of Labor & Industry v. Workers' Compensation Appeals Board" on Justia Law

by
The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”) makes an employer liable for paying the disability benefits and medical expenses of an employee who sustains an injury in the course of his or her employment. In January 1993, Craig Whitmoyer suffered a work-related injury that resulted in the amputation of part of his arm. Starting at that time, his employer, Mountain Country Meats (“MCM”), or MCM’s insurance carrier, Selective Insurance (“Selective”), paid all of Whitmoyer’s medical expenses related to this injury. A few months later, the parties reached an agreement related to Whitmoyer’s disability benefits – he was entitled “to a 20 week healing period and 370 weeks of specific loss benefits [at $237.50 per week after May 22, 1993].” Whitmoyer subsequently petitioned for a commutation of these weekly payments. In December 1994, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (“WCJ”) granted his petition and directed MCM or Selective to pay Whitmoyer a lump sum payment of $69,994.64. While this commutation resolved his entitlement to disability benefits entirely, MCM remained responsible for Whitmoyer’s ongoing medical bills. Several years later, Whitmoyer obtained a $300,000 settlement from third parties related to his injury and, in April 1999, he entered a third-party settlement agreement (the “TPSA”) with Selective providing that as to past-paid compensation, Selective was entitled to a net subrogation lien of $81,627.87. Selective continued to pay Whitmoyer’s work-related medical expenses in full (without taking credit under the TPSA) for approximately thirteen years, until September 2012. At that time, Selective filed a modification petition requesting an adjustment to the TPSA to reflect the medical expenses incurred since the parties entered the agreement. The WCJ found, per the parties’ stipulation, that Selective had paid $206,670.88 for Whitmoyer’s work injury as of February 2013.The WCJ ordered that Selective’s percentage credit be reduced to 26.09% of future medical expenses, up to Whitmoyer’s balance of recovery amount of $189,416.27. Whitmoyer appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (the “Board”), arguing that the TPSA was unenforceable because neither he nor his counsel had signed it. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to determine whether the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding that the term “instalments of compensation” in section 319 of the WCA encompassed both disability benefits and payment of medical expenses. Under the WCA, disability benefits were required to be paid “in periodical installments, as the wages of the employee were payable before the injury.” Medical expenses are not. Accordingly, when a workers’ compensation claimant recovers proceeds from a third-party settlement (following repayment of compensation paid to date) as prescribed by section 319, the employer (or insurance carrier) is limited to drawing down against that recovery only to the extent that future disability benefits are payable to the claimant. The Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Whitmoyer v. Workers' Compensation App. Bd." on Justia Law