eNotes: Liability – November 2019
November 02, 2019
SIGNIFICANT CASE SUMMARIES
PENNSYLVANIA CASE SUMMARIES
Barnard v. The Travelers Home & Marine Ins. Co.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court
No. 42 EAP 2018
Decided: September 26, 2019
New stacking waivers are required whenever an insured increases the UM or UIM coverage on an existing auto policy.
In September 2007, Barnard purchased automobile insurance from Travelers containing UIM coverage in the amount of $50,000 per vehicle. She waived stacking. In May 2009, Barnard increased her UIM coverage limit on each vehicle to $100,000. She did not execute a new stacking waiver. In June 2016, Banard was involved in a motor vehicle accident with an underinsured motorist. Barnard sought $200,000 in UIM Coverage, but Travelers maintained she was only entitled to $100,000. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit certified the question to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that an increase to the limits of UIM or UM coverage for multiple vehicles, that are insured under an existing policy, constitute a purchase under Section 1738(c) of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law. Therefore, since the carrier did not secure a new waiver of stacking form from the insured, the insured was entitled to receive stacked UIM coverage following an accident.
An insurance company must offer an insured the opportunity to waive stacking any time she acquires UIM or UM coverage for more than one vehicle, regardless of whether the acquisition occurs when she initially applies or when she subsequently increases her coverage limits for multiple vehicles.
Questions about this case can be directed to Jolee Bovender, at (717) 255-7626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shiflett v. Lehigh Valley Health Network
Pennsylvania Supreme Court
No. 43 MDA 2018
Decided: September 26, 2019
Hospital’s attorneys fall victims to the “general-verdict rule” and miss opportunities to challenge $2.4m verdict on appeal.
In a medical negligence case, the hospital-Defendants contended that one of Mrs. Shiflett’s claims was barred by the 2-year statute of limitations. More specifically, the Shifletts timely filed claims focused on alleged negligent treatment, and corporate liability, for injuries suffered while Mrs. Shiflett was in the post-surgical unit (PSU). Three years later, the Trial Court allowed the Shifletts to amend their complaint to include claims arising out of treatment she received in the transitional stay unit (TSU).
Three claims were presented to the jury on a special verdict slip: 1) for vicarious liability relating to the alleged negligence of the nurse in the PSU, 2) for the alleged negligence of a different nurse in the TSU, and 3) for corporate negligence relating to Mrs. Shiflett’s fall in the PSU. Although the verdict slip asked the jury separate questions regarding each of the three claims for negligence, the verdict slip asked the jury to provide their award in a lump sum for past noneconomic losses, future medical expenses, future noneconomic losses, and loss of spousal services, society and consortium, without regard to the three claims submitted to them. A Lehigh County jury answered the questions regarding the nurse in the TSU and for corporate negligence for the PSU in the affirmative, answered the question concerning the nurse in the PSU in the negative, and returned a verdict in favor of the Shifletts for $2,391,620.
After the Superior Court found that the claims arising from the treatment in the TSU were barred by the 2-year statute of limitation and remanded the case for a new trial, on appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court and held that under the “general-verdict rule” the verdict must stand. The Supreme Court explained that “when a jury returns a general verdict involving two or more issues and its verdict is supported as to at least one issue, the verdict will not be reversed on appeal.” Here, because the hospital-Defendants’ did not request a special jury interrogatory that would have allocated damages to the several claims, did not object to the final verdict slip, and did not object to the verdict itself before the jury was discharged, any challenge to the Trial Court’s allowing the time-barred claim to proceed was waived.
Questions about this case can be directed to Joe Holko, at (610) 332-7005 or email@example.com.
Matthews v. Batroney
Pennsylvania Superior Court
No. 483 EDA 2019, 2019 Pa. Super. 299
Decided: October 4, 2019
Jury instruction on rights-of-way for vehicles is inapplicable at a two-way stop where one motorist failed to stop at the stop sign.
Plaintiff, operating a bicycle, and Defendant, operating a motor vehicle, approached an intersection of one-way streets in Philadelphia at approximately the same time and collided within the intersection. Defendant stopped at the stop sign before entering the intersection, but did not see Plaintiff approaching. Plaintiff admitted to not stopping at the stop sign, but contended that he had the right-of-way because he was coming from Defendant’s right. A disinterested witness confirmed that Defendant stopped and Plaintiff did not. At trial, Plaintiff sought a jury instruction on Vehicle Code § 3321, indicating that when two vehicles approach or enter an intersection from different highways at approximately the same time, the driver on the left shall yield the right-of-way to the vehicle on the right. The Trial Court denied the instruction, finding it inapplicable where there was a two-way stop and someone had not stopped. The jury found Plaintiff 70% negligent and judgment was entered for the Defendant.
In affirming the Trial Court, the Superior Court held that the Plaintiff’s admitted violation of the rule requiring him to stop at a stop sign forfeited his right-of-way proscribed by § 3321. It therefore agreed with the Trial Court’s determination that due to Plaintiff’s admitted violation of his duty to stop at the stop sign immediately preceding the collision, the Trial Court did not abuse its discretion or commit an error at law in refusing to charge the jury on rights-of-way.
Questions about this case can be directed to James Swartz, III, at (610) 332-7028 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Corey v. Wilkes Barre Hosp. Co.
Pennsylvania Superior Court
2019 Pa. Super. 288
Decided: September 23, 2019
Communications with divorce counsel were not protected by the attorney-client privilege when Plaintiff placed the marital relationship at issue by asserting loss of consortium claim.
Plaintiff, administratrix of her husband’s estate, and in her own right, filed a wrongful death action against Wilkes-Bare General Hospital. Plaintiff-wife’s lawsuit against the hospital included a loss of consortium claim. Plaintiff-wife had filed for divorce approximately six months prior to the death of her husband, at which point, they were living separately for two years. Given Plaintiff-wife’s loss of consortium claim, the hospital sought production of Plaintiff-wife’s divorce attorney’s file, but only the non-privileged materials were produced. The hospital then sought production of several divorce documents enumerated in Plaintiff-wife’s privilege log via motion to compel, which the Trial Court granted after an in camera review. Plaintiff-wife appealed the Trial Court’s ruling regarding the production of documents containing her communications with her divorce attorney, asserting the attorney-client privilege.
The Superior Court affirmed the Trial Court’s order regarding the production of communications between Plaintiff-wife and her divorce attorney. The Superior Court noted that in order to prevail on a loss of consortium claim, a plaintiff must first prove the existence of consortium (“conjugal fellowship of husband and wife, and the right of each to the company, society, co-operation, affection, and aid of the other in every conjugal relation”). The Superior Court reasoned that Plaintiff-wife had placed the marital relationship at issue by asserting the loss of consortium claim and that she could not “hide behind the attorney-client privilege to protect communications she had with her divorce attorney when it was [she] who placed her marital relationship, and consequently, the state of the divorce, at issue . . . .” The Superior Court reasoned that such withholding of communications would prejudice the hospital’s defense of the claim.
Questions about this case can be directed to Brook Dirlam, at (412) 926-1438 or email@example.com.
Carlini v. Glenn O. Hawbaker, Inc.
Pennsylvania Superior Court
No. 814 MDA 2018, 879 MDA 2018
Decided: September 13, 2019
Company’s financial records prepared by accountant offered to support punitive damages were not subject to “business records” hearsay exception and required authentication and testimony from preparer.
Plaintiff Carlini was injured in a work-related accident in April 2016 and sought workers’ compensation in June 2016. She saw a physician on Hawbaker’s workers’ compensation panel on June 15. He diagnosed her with various knee and lower back issues and permitted her to return to work without restriction on June 16. On June 22, Carlini was ordered by Hawbaker to go to Ohio and operate a rock truck. Carlini did not believe that she could perform the task due to pain from her injuries. Hawbaker sent her home and advised that her refusal to accept the assignment was considered insubordination. Carlini telephoned the physician and he electronically signed a work restriction limitation to sedentary work until June 30 at which time she was to appear for another medical examination. On June 22, Hawbaker then asked the medical case manager to call the physician to insist that the work status not be changed to sedentary work until after a follow up appointment. The physician agreed to push up the appointment to June 23. After learning of the new date of the follow up appointment, Hawbaker contacted Carlini and advised her to come to a meeting the next day at 8:00 a.m. at which time she was fired for insubordination.
Carlini filed wrongful discharge and invasion of privacy claims alleging that she was fired in retaliation for exercising her worker’s compensation right and that her privacy was violated for contacting the physician to change the date of her appointment. Punitive damages were requested on both claims. Hawbaker filed a motion in limine seeking to bifurcate the trial and preclude evidence of its net worth unless the jury determined that punitive damages were warranted. This motion was denied. At trial, Hawbaker’s regional vice president was asked questions concerning financial documents prepared by Hawbaker’s accountants over the hearsay objection of Hawbaker. After trial, the jury found for Carlini on the claims of wrongful discharge and invasion of privacy. The jury awarded compensatory damages for wrongful discharge and $1 million in punitive damages on the claims of wrongful termination and $1 million in punitive damages on the claim of invasion of privacy. Post trial motions were denied and cross appeals were filed.
The Superior Court determined that the Court did not err in denying bifurcation and allowing evidence of Hawbaker’s financial resources. The Court agreed with the Trial Court that such evidence provided additional context for the scope and sophistication of Hawbaker’s business operations that could assist the jury in determining the validity of the wrongful discharge claim. However, the Superior Court did grant a new trial as to the issue of punitive damages, finding that Carlini failed to present evidence to establish that the accountant’s financial records satisfied the business records exception to the hearsay rule. The Court recounted that there was no testimony as to how the accountants prepared or maintained the financial records. Further, the witness called by Carlini to testify about the records, Hawbaker’s regional vice president, testified that he had never seen the financial records prior to entering the court room. Based upon this testimony, the Court determined that he did not have sufficient knowledge to authenticate the records. Without this authentication, the Trial Court abused its discretion in permitting the admission of the records and the testimony as to Hawbaker’s net worth.
Questions about this case can be directed to Rebecca Sember-Izsak, at (412) 926-1446 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SLT Holdings, LLC v. Mitch-Well Energy, Inc.
Pennsylvania Superior Court
No. 1332 WDA 2018
Decided: August 23, 2019
Trial Court did not err in awarding costs and fees as a sanction against a party that improperly denied requests for admissions.
Plaintiffs served Defendants with requests for admissions wherein Defendants were requested to admit they had not made required payments to Plaintiffs for approximately thirteen years. Defendants denied the requests. As a result, Plaintiffs were forced to press forward with discovery and depose Defendants. At the depositions, Defendants testified to facts establishing that no payments had been made in approximately thirteen years. Plaintiffs sought sanctions for the costs and legal fees resulting from the denials provided in response to the requests for admissions, the substance of which was ultimately proven to be true through further discovery. The Trial Court issued a sanction against the Defendants for $8,383.40, which represented the amounts needlessly expended.
The Superior Court affirmed the Trial Court’s award of sanctions. Under the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure, a party may be subjected to sanctions where it denies a request for admission, but the information sought in the request is subsequently proven by the party who served the request. Given that the trial court was authorized to issue sanctions under the circumstances presented, the Superior Court found no abuse of discretion in the Trial Court’s decision. The Superior Court also rejected Defendants’ argument that sanctions were not to be awarded absent a hearing or trial. As the Superior Court explained, trial was not required in the case because summary judgment was granted in favor of Plaintiffs.
Questions about this case can be directed to Matthew Clayberger, at (717) 237-7150 or email@example.com.
MARYLAND CASE SUMMARY
Trotman v. State of Maryland
Maryland Court of Appeals
September Term, 2019, No. 8
Decided: October 18, 2019
A prospective juror with a disability may be stricken for cause after consideration of whether a reasonable accommodation is possible and whether, at that particular trial, the prospective juror’s particular disability would prevent him or her from completing jury service.
Sergeant Danny Trotman, a correctional officer, was charged with second-degree assault, conspiracy to commit second-degree assault, and misconduct in office. His jury trial was set in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City over two days. The trial was located in a courtroom in which to reach the jury room, any juror was required to climb a staircase with twenty-five steps.
At the start of trial, the Trial Court was notified by the jury office that four prospective jurors had disclosed that they were unable to use stairs. Once in the courtroom, each juror was called up, and the Trial Court confirmed that each of the prospective jurors could not use the staircase. The Trial Court excused each of the four prospective jurors for cause, and directed them back to the jury assembly room. Defendant objected to the striking of the jurors, and requested an accommodation. The Trial Court noted that no additional courtrooms were available for trial that day. Trial commenced in the assigned courtroom and Sergeant Trotman was found guilty.
The Court of Appeals held that the Trial Court did not abuse its discretion when it struck for cause the four prospective jurors who were unable to climb stairs to reach the jury room. Unlike race or gender, the term “disability” can be related to a person’s fitness as a juror. Therefore, while a trial court may not summarily excuse a prospective jurors with disabilities, a trial court may excuse a prospective juror on a disability-related ground if no reasonable accommodation is possible, and the trial court finds that at that specific trial, the prospective juror’s disability would prevent him or her from providing satisfactory service. Here, the Trial Court did not abuse its discretion as no additional courtrooms were available and the four prospective jurors were sent to the jury assembly room where they may have been assigned to another trial in which the climbing of stairs was not required.
Questions about this case can be directed to Lauren Upton, at (410) 653-0460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEW JERSEY CASE SUMMARY
Cabrera v. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ.
New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division
Decided: October 8, 2019
Superior Court reverses Trial Court’s grant of summary judgment on basis that Defendant had duty to warn.
Defendant Fairleigh Dickinson University hired KB Electric Services to change lights on top of its library. Defendant knew about a latent defect with a balustrade on the roof, but failed to warn anyone at KB of the danger. Plaintiff, an employee of KB, fell off the roof because of this dangerous condition. Typically, Plaintiff would access the roof by using a KB bucket truck. In this case, Defendant interfered with that practice. After directing Plaintiff where to work, Defendant parked its own truck obstructing the KB bucket truck’s access. Plaintiff was unable to access the roof from the bucket or from inside the library. Plaintiff found an alternate way to reach the roof, and while there, leaned on a balustrade to retrieve pliers. Plaintiff fell when the balustrade gave way. The Trial Court held that Defendant owed Plaintiff no duty to warn about the danger of the balustrade.
The Appellate Division reversed and remanded to the Trial Court. The Court ruled that Defendant knew about the latent dangerous condition of the balustrade and previous attempts to repair it, but failed to inform Plaintiff or KB of the condition. The Court stated that the dangerous condition was hidden, the balustrade appeared to be solid, and it was not part of or incidental to repairing the light bulbs. Under these circumstances, the Court held Defendant had a duty to warn others of the balustrade’s condition.
Questions about this case can be directed to Michael Bishop, at (908) 574-0557 or email@example.com.
VIRGINIA CASE SUMMARY
Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. Erie Ins. Exch.
Virginia Supreme Court
829 S.E.2d 731
Decided: July 18, 2019
Nationwide’s allegations in its suit seeking equitable contribution from Erie were sufficient to survive demurrer.
The underlying action involved a wrongful death claim. Nationwide had three applicable policies totalling $3 Million and Erie had two applicable policies totalling $6 Million. In a declaratory judgment action, the Circuit Court determined that all of Erie’s policies were excess to Nationwide’s policies. Nationwide appealed that decision, but then, during the pendency of the appeal, settled with the claimant for $2.9 Million. Erie refused to contribute to the settlement. The Virginia Supreme Court ultimately reversed the Circuit Court’s decision, holding that one of Erie’s $1 Million policies and one of Nationwide’s $1 Million policies each provided primary coverage and that the remaining policies were all excess on a pro rata basis. Nationwide thereafter filed the instant action, seeking equitable contribution from Erie for $1.75 Million, the pro rata share of the settlement. The Circuit Court sustained Erie’s demurrer and dismissed the action.
Equitable contribution does not arise out of any express contract or agreement between the parties to indemnify; rather, it is based on the broad principles of equity that where two or more persons are subject to a common burden, it shall be borne equally. However, in order to enforce contribution, the payment must have been made by one obligated to pay the whole, as between himself and the payee, but only bound to pay a proportionate amount as between himself and his co-obligors. Here, Erie refused to contribute to the settlement based on the Circuit Court’s decision that its policies were excess to Nationwide’s $3 Million and, thus, Erie had no original obligation to pay any of the $2.9 Million.
When the Supreme Court altered the Circuit Court’s decision, and determined that Erie’s policies were not excess to Nationwide’s policies, Erie was no longer entitled to rely on the Circuit Court’s decision to argue that the principles of equitable contribution did not apply. The Supreme Court also explicitly held for the first time that, where an insurance company denies coverage under the policy, the insured is relieved of the strict performance of those provisions intended for the protection of the insurer.
Questions about this case can be directed to Lacey Conn at (202) 945-9502 or firstname.lastname@example.org.