Saturday, September 5, 2009

Recent Automobile Law Cases of Note

The following recent automobile law cases of note were identified in the August 31, 2009 Case Digests of the Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Copies of the cases may be obtained for a small fee by calling the Law Weekly at 1-800-276-7427 and giving the PICS Case Numbers noted below:

Proximate Causation in Chain Reaction Accident

Ensor v. Slaybaugh, PICS Case No. 09-1474 (C.P. Centre Aug. 20, 2009) Kistler, J. (6 pages).

This case involved a multi-vehicle chain reaction accident. The Plaintiff was stopped in his vehicle waiting to make a left at an intersection. Defendant Slaybaugh was stopped right behind the Plaintiff, in close proximity to the rear of the Plaintiff's vehicle. The Co-Defendant, Engleman, then came along and struck Defendant Slaybaugh's vehicle in the rear, propelling it into the Plaintiff's vehicle. The Plaintiff sued both Defendants.

Defendant Slaybaugh, the operator of the middle vehicle moved for summary judgment, arguing that he had done nothing wrong.

The court held that a driver has no duty to stop his car at a traffic light far enough from the car in front of him to avoid the possibility of a telescopic accident, one in which being struck from behind drives one’s car forward into another vehicle in front. As such, the court granted summary judgment to Defendant Slaybaugh in this case.

The court noted that the Plaintiff argued that this case was analogous to the famous decision by Justice Cardozo, studied by all in law school regarding proximate causation--Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., 162 N.E.99 (N.Y. 1922). However, the court in Ensor rejected this argument by noting that the Plaintiff failed to understand that Justice Cardozo ruled that where there is a causal chain that was too attenuated, there was no proximate cause. Here, too, no such proximate cause was found to exist.

That is, Defendant Slaybaugh's actions of bringing his vehicle to a stop very close to the rear of the Plaintiff's vehicle without striking the Plaintiff's vehicle could not be said to have been a proximate cause of the Plaintiff's injuries when Defendant Slaybaugh's vehicle was propelled into the rear of the Plaintiff's vehicle by the negligence of another driver. Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment.


Subrogation

City of Wilkes-Barre v. Sheils, PICS Case No. 09-1445 (3d Cir. Aug. 25, 2009) Smith, J. (14 pages).

This case involved a police officer who was injured in 1996 when a Luzerne County vehicle struck his cruiser. He was unable to return to work for nine years, during which he drew benefits under the Heart and Lung Act. He also sued Luzerne County for the injuries he suffered, and during the pendency of that action filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy action.

In 2005, the Middle District of Pennsylvania approved a settlement of the personal injury action, after which the city sought subrogation, or a pay back, of the benefits it had paid to the injured police officer. The Bankruptcy Court rejected the city's subrogation claim, and the Middle District Court agreed on the grounds that the city’s right of subrogation was barred by the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL).

In this decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the lower court's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Court analogized Heart and Lung Benefits as being similar to Worker's Compensation Benefits. Given that the Motor Vehicle Responsibility Law allowed for subrogation of Worker's Compensation Benefits, the Third Circuit ruled that Pennsylvania law likewise should be construed to allow for an employer to assert his subrogation rights in the Heart and Lung Benefits context.

Accordingly, the Third Circuit has ruled that an employer may seeking to recover, or be paid back, from the plaintiff's verdict or settlement those payments the employer previously paid out under the Heart and Lung Act as a result of the accident.

It therefore follows, under Sections 1720 and 1722 of the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Act, that a plaintiff may plead and present at trial the dollar amount of such benefits he or she received in an effort to convince the jury to award that additional amount to its verdict.

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