eNotes: Liability – November 2022 – Pennsylvania
November 01, 2022
SIGNIFICANT CASE SUMMARIES
Pennsylvania Case Summaries
Cowher v. Kodali
Pennsylvania Supreme Court
2022 Pa. LEXIS 1408, 2022 WL 4542224
Decided: September 29, 2022
When the jury returned a general verdict for Plaintiff, resting on both valid and invalid grounds, Defendant’s failure to request a special verdict slip that would have clarified the basis for the verdict waived any right to a new trial for any evidentiary error that may have tainted one of the bases for the verdict.
Plaintiff’s decedent suffered a cardiac event while running in his neighborhood. Plaintiff brought wrongful death and survival actions against his health care providers alleging medical negligence. The wrongful death award, while substantial in and of itself, was not challenged on appeal. Instead, the case turned on whether the survival act award was improper. Over objection, the Trial Court allowed evidence concerning any conscious pain and suffering that Decedent experienced during the brief interval between the Decedent’s collapse and his loss of consciousness. The jury also heard from an economic expert who opined that the lost earnings ranged from approximately $1,000,000 to $2,700,000. The jury was instructed that the damages to be awarded under the survival action included the following four components: pain and suffering, loss of life’s pleasures, past lost earnings, and past non-economic damages. The jury returned a lump sum award for survival act damages in excess of $3,800,000. The defense did not request an itemized verdict, nor did it seek clarification of the damage award.
The defense filed a Motion for a new trial, contending that the survival act award was improper because the court erred in allowing an expert to opine that the decedent did have conscious pain and suffering and that the survival act verdict, which exceeded the high end of the projected economic loss by more than $1,100,000 must have been affected by the improper evidence on pain and suffering. The Motion was denied, but a panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania granted a new trial on the survival act damages. The Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the verdict under the survival act.
The Supreme Court applied the general verdict rule to insulate the survival act award from appellate scrutiny. Under that rule, 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 disturbed on appeal. A party that fails to request a special verdict form will be barred on appeal from complaining that the jury may have relied upon a flawed or unsupported theory when there was sufficient evidence to support another proper theory before the jury. In this case, three aspects of the jury award for survival act damages were proper and supported by the evidence: loss of ability to enjoy the pleasures of life, past lost earnings, and future lost earnings. To preserve the issue for appeal, the defense should have asked for a special verdict to identify how much, if any amount, was awarded for pain and suffering.
Questions about this case can be directed to Louis Long at (412) 926-1424 or email@example.com.
Chilutti v. Uber Techs., Inc.
Pennsylvania Superior Court
No. 1023 EDA 2021, 2022 Pa. Super. 172
Decided: October 12, 2022
Superior Court finds Uber’s “terms and conditions” arbitration provision to be invalid.
Plaintiff Shannon Chilutti was injured while riding in a car provided by the transportation service company, Defendant Uber Technologies. Plaintiff used the Uber application to obtain a ride home from a medical appointment. The driver of the vehicle for Uber that responded to the request picked up Plaintiff. Plaintiff, who is wheelchair bound, was secured in the vehicle using pre-positioned retractable hooks, but was not provided a seatbelt, despite requesting one. While driving, the Uber driver allegedly made an aggressive left hand turn, causing Plaintiff to fall out of her wheelchair and strike her head, rendering her unconscious.
Chilutti filed a Complaint seeking to recover injuries sustained as a result of the incident against Uber Technologies, among others. Defendant Uber filed a Petition to compel arbitration. Uber argued that the terms and conditions of the Uber application required Plaintiffs to arbitrate their claims. The Trial Court granted the Petition to compel arbitration and stayed the matter as to Uber. Plaintiffs appealed.
On appeal, Plaintiffs argued that the Trial Court erred in compelling them to arbitrate their claims against Uber because no valid arbitration agreement existed between the parties. The Superior Court agreed with Plaintiffs. The Court found that Uber’s terms and conditions were “browsewrap agreements.” Uber’s “browsewrap agreement” did not provide reasonably conspicuous notice to the terms to which Plaintiffs were bound. The Court found the agreement insufficient under Pennsylvania law, which requires a party’s unambiguous manifestation of assent to arbitration. The Court outlined how unambiguous assent to arbitration may be had: (1) explicitly stating during registration that a consumer is waiving their right to a jury trial when agreeing to the terms and conditions and the registration process cannot be completed until the consumer is fully aware of that waiver; and (2) the waiver should not be hidden in the terms and conditions provisions, but instead should appear at the top of the first page in bold, capitalized text.
Questions about this case can be directed to Michael Weinert at (610) 332-7025 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Burns v. Fahrner
Pennsylvania Superior Court
2022 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2324, 2022 WL 4589121
Decided: September 30, 2022
Defamation action dismissed pursuant to the doctrine of forum non conveniens.
Plaintiff’s defamation action was dismissed in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas pursuant to the doctrine of forum non conveniens. On appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, Plaintiff (Burns) contended that the Trial Court erred by misstating certain evidence and ignored relevant evidence, made unwarranted factual and legal presumptions, and failed to follow procedural rules. This case’s origins can be traced back to an encounter between the parties in Las Vegas, Nevada on or about September 21, 2019. There, Defendant (Fahrner) claims that Burns drugged and raped her.
On or about June 8, 2021, Fahrner sent Burns a demand for a monetary sum based on allegations that he placed a date rape drug in her drink. In August of 2021, a voluntary mediation was held in this matter, but was unsuccessful. On September 1, 2021, Fahrner filed a Civil Complaint in the District Court of Clark County, Nevada against Plaintiff. The following day, on September 2, 2021, Burns filed a Praecipe for Summons in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas alleging a slander/libel/defamation action. A Complaint followed on September 9, 2021. Plaintiff (Burns) claimed that on August 18, 2021, he learned that Defendant (Fahrner) had published a false statement regarding the incident in question years before to certain individuals, some of whom lived in Pennsylvania. Fahrner’s residence was listed as Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. On October 19, 2021, Defendant (Fahrner) filed a Petition to dismiss the Complaint based on the doctrine of forum non conveniens.
The Superior Court reasoned that, although at least one witness was located in Pennsylvania, most witnesses primarily resided in Nevada. Further, the Superior Court found no evidence that any allegedly defamatory statements were made in Pennsylvania. The Superior Court noted that “it is within the trial court’s discretion to weigh some factors more heavily than others and weighing the factors is not an exercise in counting numbers.” Finally, the Superior Court found that the community in Nevada had a greater relation to the litigation, as the underlying incident occurred there, the ensuing criminal investigation occurred there, the sexual assault examination occurred there, and a mediation took place there. The Superior Court further found that the two actions were factually related, so that resolution of the Nevada action may be dispositive with regard to Burn’s defamation claim. The Superior Court affirmed the Trial Court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s defamation Complaint, without prejudice to re-file in Nevada.
Questions about this case can be directed to Ryan Hatfield at (412) 926-1422 or email@example.com.
McGuinness v. Elite-Crete Systems, Inc.
Pennsylvania Superior Court
No. 1176 EDA 2021
Decided: September 14, 2022
Venue was properly transferred on forum non conveniens grounds where Plaintiff’s chosen forum presented hardships to multiple third-party witnesses, none of the parties resided in the chosen forum, and the incident occurred in another forum.
Plaintiffs asserted product liability, negligence, and loss of consortium claims based on injuries resulting from a fuel air explosion that occurred as they mixed products for use in refinishing the concrete floor of a residential basement. The incident occurred in Allegheny County. Plaintiffs filed suit in Philadelphia County. Plaintiffs themselves were not residents of Philadelphia County. Of the Defendants (the manufacturers and sellers of the products), two were based in Bucks County, one was an Indiana corporation, and one was an Ohio corporation. Defendants moved to transfer venue to Allegheny County, based on forum non conveniens, asserting that the action had no relationship to Philadelphia County and all evidence and witnesses were located in Allegheny County. Defendants did not assert that trial in Philadelphia County would be oppressive to their own businesses or personnel. Rather, they relied upon the Affidavits of six third-party fact witnesses asserting hardships they would incur if called to testify at trial in Philadelphia County, including the 300-mile travel distance, their personal responsibility for travel costs, their inability to take leave time to attend trial, and hardship involved in arranging child care. Five of these witnesses were first responders who provided the information from which the fire marshal determined the cause of the explosion, and whose absence while traveling for trial could pose public safety issues.
The Trial Court granted the venue transfer on grounds including that none of the causes of action arose in Philadelphia County, none of the third party witnesses lived there, trial in Allegheny County would allow a jury to view the site of the incident, and the sole connection between Philadelphia County and the litigation was that the Defendants conducted business there. The Superior Court, under the applicable “abuse of discretion” standard, noted that a plaintiff’s choice of forum is entitled to deference, and that a defendant challenging venue under forum non conveniens bears the “heavy burden” of showing with “detailed information on the record” that the chosen forum is “oppressive or vexatious” under the totality of the circumstances. Oppressiveness, which requires more than mere inconvenience, can be established by presenting a sufficient factual basis to show that trial in another forum would provide easier access to witnesses and other evidence.
The Superior Court, while acknowledging the venue issue to be a “close case,” held that a proper basis existed for a transfer of venue under the facts presented.
Questions about this case can be directed to Karin M. Romano at (412) 926-1426 or firstname.lastname@example.org.