Justia Injury Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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