Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lackawanna County Judge Carmen Minora Has Two Cases on Last Week's "Most Wanted Opinions" in Pennsylvania Law Weekly

In last week's Pennsylvania Law Weekly, two recent opinions by Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge Carmen Minora were listed as some of the "Most Wanted Opinions," or the most frequently requested decisions from the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service offered by that legal newspaper. Copies of the below opinions can be secured from the Law Weekly, for a small fee, by calling 1-800-276-7427 and giving the PICS No. noted below. What follows is a concise summarization of the cases:

Carra-Cielski v. Scrimalli, PICS Case No. 091650, 2006-CIVIL-2735 (Lacka. Co. August 18, 2009, Minora J.)

Judge Minora addressed the issue of whether a Defendant-owner of a motor vehicle should be granted summary judgment on a negligent entrustment claim involving a Defendant-driver who was the owner's grandson and who had a history of underage drinking.

Judge Minora acknowledged in his opinion that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has limited the theory of negligent entrustment to specific and narrow situations where the owner of the vehicle knew or should have known that when permission was given to the driver, the driver was not in a condition to operate the vehicle.

However, Judge Minora appeared to expand that rule of law under the facts of this case to allow the claim of negligent entrustment to continue even though it did not appear that there was any evidence that the Defendant-owner knew or should have known that the Defendant-driver was incompetent to drive the vehicle at the time the Defendant-driver took the vehicle just prior to the accident.

In this case, Judge Minora pointed to the fact that the Defendant-driver, who was the grandson of the Defendant-owner and who had unfettered access to the vehicle, was known to have a history, over the two years leading up to the accident, of engaging in repeated patterns of underage drinking. It was also noted that, on at least one occasion prior to the subject accident, the Defendant-driver had even been found to have been drinking and driving the subject vehicle.

As such, Judge Minora ruled that the repeated conduct of the Defendant-driver arguably demanded greater vigilance, supervision, and control by the Defendant-owner over the vehicle that he owned. Accordingly, the Court felt that a jury could conclude that the Defendant-owner knew or should have known that the Defendant-driver “could become incompetent to drive his motor vehicle.” The Court found that the Defendant-owner’s willful blindness to his grandson’s repeated illegal activities means the Plaintiff could possibly prove to a jury the necessary elements constituting the cause of action of negligent entrustment.

As such, Judge Minora felt that it was premature to dismiss this case at the summary judgment stage.

Veltri v. Travelers Commercial Insurance Company, PICS Case 09-1653, No. 08-CIVIL-8534 (Lacka. Co. September 2, 2009)

This case involved a motor vehicle accident during which the Plaintiff’s vehicle was struck in a rear-end collision by a tractor trailer. The Plaintiff’s first party motor vehicle insurance carrier was Travelers. Travelers initially paid first party medical and wage loss benefits and then referred the Plaintiff for an IME.

The first IME was favorable to the Plaintiff and, as such, Travelers was compelled to continue paying first party benefits.

Thereafter, Travelers requested a second IME with a new and different “defense” physician (as described in the opinion) who issued an assessment that the Plaintiff’s allegedly ongoing conditions were no longer related to the subject accident. Based upon the second IME, Travelers ceased all first party benefits.

Judge Minora noted in his opinion that, “[w]ithout much surprise,” Travelers’ decision to terminate first party benefits led to the filing of a breach of contract and bad faith Complaint by the Plaintiff.

Travelers responded with Preliminary Objections to the bad faith count of the Complaint alleging that the general tenets of the bad faith statute at 42 Pa. C.S.A. §8371 are negated by the specific first party benefit remedies of the MVFRL found at 75 Pa. C.S.A. §1716 and §1798.

Judge Minora denied the Travelers’ Preliminary Objections and rejected the contention that the rules of statutory construction mandate that the punitive provisions for the nonpayment of first party benefits found under the MVFRL negate or trump the general bad faith statute. The court essentially ruled that where, as here, the Complaint alleges culpable misconduct both within and beyond the coverage of the specific statutes of the MVFRL, then the general bad faith statute at §8371 may additionally apply as well.

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