Car Accidents

April 8th, 2021 by Rieders Travis in Car Accidents

FAIR SHARE ACT-MOTOR VEHICLE COLLISION

Spencer v. Johnson, 2021 Pa. Super. LEXIS 144, 2021 PA Super 48 (March 18, 2021) (Panella, P.J.)  This consolidated appeal arises out of an automobile accident that occurred in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On October 16, 2014, the car that Cleveland Johnson (“Cleveland”) was driving struck Appellant/Cross-Appellee, Keith Spencer (“Spencer”), a pedestrian, as he lawfully crossed the street. Spencer suffered permanent, debilitating injuries, which have severely diminished his quality of life. Central to this appeal is the extent to which the owner of the car that Cleveland was driving should be held liable for Spencer’s injuries. The owner, Appellee/Cross-Appellant, Philadelphia Joint Board Workers United, SEIU (“PJB”), provided the car to its employee, Appellee/Cross-Appellant, Tina Johnson (“Tina”), who is Cleveland’s wife. The parties do not dispute two facts: (1) Spencer was not at fault, and (2) Cleveland was negligent in his operation of the vehicle. However, the parties disagree as to whether Tina was negligent in allowing Cleveland to operate her work vehicle, and whether PJB was negligent under the laws of agency and vicarious liability in failing to maintain reasonable policies and regulations for the vehicles it provides to employees like Tina. As will be discussed in detail below, Spencer instituted a civil action against Cleveland, Tina, and PJB, and the matter eventually went to trial. The jury found that all three defendants shared liability for Spencer’s injuries, and apportioned that liability among the defendants. Spencer sought to mold the verdict to make PJB jointly and severally liable for Tina’s negligence. The trial court denied Spencer’s request. Because we conclude that Spencer is legally entitled to this relief, we are constrained to reverse the trial court’s denial of Spencer’s post-trial motion to mold the verdict, and we consequently remand for further proceedings.

 

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found all three defendants were negligent and their negligence were each factual causes of harm to Spencer. The jury allocated liability as follows: Cleveland (36%), Tina (19%), and PJB (45%). The jury then awarded Spencer $683,311.47 for past medical expenses, $7,300,000 for future medical expenses, and non-economic damages of $5,000,000, for a total verdict amount of $12,983,311.47.

 

After the court read the verdict, Spencer’s counsel stated it was his position that because PJB was Tina’s employer and their combined negligence was greater than 60%, PJB should be liable for the entire damages award as to all three defendants under a provision of the Fair Share Act. See N.T., 1/28/2019, at 127. The court noted the request on the record, but did not agree to it. See id., at 128. Tina and PJB both orally requested relief in the form of judgment notwithstanding the verdict (“JNOV”), which the trial court denied.

 

The trial court erred in failing to grant Spencer’s motion to mold the verdict pursuant to the Fair Share Act, as the jury’s general verdict warranted a finding that PJB was vicariously liable for Tina’s negligence and therefore, the theory of joint and several liability applied. PJB’s and Tina’s combined liability exceeded the 60% liability threshold. See 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102(a.1)(3)(iii). Accordingly, we reverse the court’s denial of Spencer’s post-trial motion and remand for further proceedings as PJB and Tina remain jointly and severally liable for Spencer’s injuries. Nevertheless, assuming arguendo that the jury’s verdict did not demonstrate PJB was vicariously liable, we would have found the court erred in failing to grant the motion to the mold the verdict as the question of whether the Fair Share Act applies to the present matter remains.

 

Immediately, we note the structure of the statute. Subsection (a) provides the “general rule” that a plaintiff’s contributory negligence is not a complete bar to recovery. Instead, the “general rule” provides for two scenarios based upon comparing the plaintiff’s negligence with that of the defendants. First, if the plaintiff’s negligence was a greater cause of her injuries than the defendants’ negligence, then the plaintiff’s recovery is barred. Second, if the defendants’ negligence was a greater cause of the plaintiff’s injuries than the plaintiff’s own negligence, then the plaintiff’s recovery against the defendant will be reduced in proportion to the amount of the plaintiff’s negligence. Importantly, neither scenario deals with the circumstances present here, where there has been no allegation of a plaintiff’s own negligence, let alone no jury finding of contributory negligence.

 

The statute then proceeds to subsection (a.1). Read in context, this subsection only applies when the plaintiff has overcome the obstacles to recovery set forth in section (a). Significantly, subsection (a.1) begins with the phrase, “[w]here recovery is allowed against more than one person …” (emphasis added).

 

The Fair Share Act concerns matters where a plaintiff’s own negligence may have or has contributed to the incident; that set of circumstances does not apply to the present matter. While this case involved multiple tortfeasors, it would have been improper to apply a statute that addresses the scenarios where a claimant may have contributed to the accident and the possible preclusion of recovery based on a plaintiff’s own negligence.

 

Therefore, as an alternative basis, we would have concluded the trial court erred in applying the Fair Share Act to the present matter because Spencer was never alleged or found to have contributed to the accident. Accordingly, PJB and Tina would still be jointly and severally liable for Spencer’s injuries. See Baker v. AC&S, 562 Pa. 290, 755 A.2d 664, 669 (Pa. 2000) (under the theory of joint and several liability, a plaintiff “may recover the entire damages award from only one of the joint tortfeasors.”).

 

As an alternative argument, Spencer claims the court erred in failing to mold the entire verdict against PJB because it is jointly and severally liable pursuant to a section of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1574.23 Spencer points to Shomo v. Scribe, 686 A.2d 1292 (Pa. 1996), for the principle that Section 1574 imputes joint and several liability on someone who commits a Section 1574 violation with the driver for any damages caused by the driver’s negligence. See Brief of Appellant, at 38. Shomo provides that “for effective enforcement of the summary offense provision of [S]ection 1574(a), it must be shown that the owner or controller knew, or had reason to know, at the time he entrusted his vehicle to another, that the driver he was authorizing or permitting to drive his vehicle was unlicensed.” Shomo, 686 A.2d at 1295 (citations omitted). Spencer states both PBJ and Tina are jointly and severally liable because: (1) Tina either directly or indirectly permitted Cleveland to drive the car while intoxicated and without a license; and (2) PJB permitted Cleveland to operate the vehicle by not enforcing its policies and failing to supervise Tina’s use of the car.

 

PJB responds by claiming Section 1574 does not apply to the case because the union and Tina offered evidence that they did not give Cleveland permission to drive the car. See id., at 24. Moreover, PJB states that evidence established that it provided the vehicle for the sole use of Tina and she was aware that she was prohibited from allowing any other individual to use the car. See id. PJB asserts that as a result, there cannot be a finding that it was in violation of Section 1574. Furthermore, PJB contends the Fair Share Act specifically sets forth the limited exceptions where joint and several liability apply, and those exceptions do not include Section 1574. See id., at 25-26.

 

As previously stated, we concluded that the jury’s general verdict necessitated a finding that PJB was vicariously liable for Tina’s negligence, and therefore, the theory of joint and several liability applied pursuant to the Fair Share Act. Accordingly, it would be redundant to decide whether the imputation of joint and several liability under Section 1574 applies to the present matter. Therefore, we need not address this claim further.

 

The court denied in part and granted in part Spencer’s motion for delay damages. Specifically, the court found he was entitled to delay damages only as calculated from August 17, 2017 to January 28, 2019, and only as calculated on the compensatory damages for which PJB was deemed liable – 45%. The total amount of delay damages assigned to PJB was $453,872.69.

 

Accordingly, we are compelled to reverse that portion of the trial court’s order that apportioned delay damages to each defendant, and remand for the recalculation of damages.

CONFLICTS OF LAW-CHOICE OF LAW-VEHICLE COLLISION

Watts v. Pekin Insurance, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51711 (M.D. Pa. March 19, 2021) (Brann, J.)  The two Plaintiffs in this case drove a car insured by the Defendant. After Plaintiffs were in a car accident, they asked the insurance company to reimburse them for costs. The insurance company refused, and Plaintiffs have sued. Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that a choice-of-law provision in the insurance contract had to be enforced and Indiana law therefore had to be applied. The motion is now ripe for disposition. The insurance company is incorrect that Indiana law must necessarily be applied. And because the insurance company failed to provide any other ground to dismiss this action, the motion is denied and the matter will proceed.

 

I am persuaded by the extensive body of case law that recognizes and upholds Clover’s acknowledgment that sometimes courts may disregard choice-of-law provisions in contract disputes. These cases include disputes both in and out of the insurance context. Therefore, the Court considers whether there are good grounds to invalidate a provision two parties contracted for. As noted above, there are two reasons why a court might reject a choice-of-law provision. The first is not at issue here. Indiana had a substantial relationship to the contract when it was entered into. Therefore, I must ask whether: (1) applying that law would contradict Pennsylvania public policy; (2) whether Pennsylvania has a materially greater interest than Indiana in the determination of this issue; and (3) whether Pennsylvania would be the state of the applicable law absent the parties’ selection of Indiana law.

 

There is “clear statutory language” in Pennsylvania indicating its “public policy on the issue of excess versus gap coverage.” This language comes from the state’s Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law. “Under the MVFRL, insurers must offer underinsured motorist coverage, and that coverage is controlled by statute and by a public policy meant to foster the fullest possible, or excess coverage.” Querying whether this policy is “fundamental,” the Court recognizes the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws, which states that statutes “involving the rights of an individual insured as against an insurance company are an example of this sort.” It is clear that allowing an insurer to provide only gap insurance (as Indiana does), instead of excess coverage, would violate Pennsylvania public policy.

 

Reviewing the allegations, it seems Pennsylvania’s interest in the resolution is materially greater than Indiana’s. Even out-of-state courts have recognized that Pennsylvania’s interest in its UIM stacking law is “obviously predicated on its firm public policy of affording its residents the full advantage of all the insurance they have purchased.” Additionally, the Third Circuit has previously found that, in cases sufficiently similar, Pennsylvania’s interest in providing the “full benefit of insurance provisions” merits application of Pennsylvania law. As this accident took place on Pennsylvania roads and impacted Pennsylvania residents, it seems reasonable to conclude that Pennsylvania has a greater interest in the resolution of this dispute than does Indiana, the state in which the contract was ostensibly formed.

 

Having determined that Pennsylvania law applies, the Court denies the motion to dismiss. It bears repeating again that Pekin failed to brief the merits of the claims under Pennsylvania law, in the event that the Court ruled against their initial choice-of-law argument. Having chosen to not address the question of whether or not the complaint stated a claim under Pennsylvania law, Pekin is not entitled to dismissal. Because Pekin’s motion to dismiss was exclusively premised on the success of its breach of contract argument, the claims for declaratory judgment and bad faith survive as well.

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