Monday, October 11, 2010

Judge Van Jura Weighs in on Collateral Source Rule and Enforceability of Release Issues

Balliet v. Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., et. al. (Luz. Co. 2010 Van Jura, J.)

In the case of Balliet v. Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., et. al., No. 358-Civil-2004 (Luz. Co. July 2, 2010, Van Jura, J.), Judge Joseph Van Jura of the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas addressed a Plaintiff’s Motion In Limine to preclude evidence of (1) Social Security Disability Benefits, and (2) worker’s compensation benefits. The Court also addressed a Plaintiff’s Motion In Limine to preclude the testimony of a defense expert.

Balliet involved a products liability action arising out of an incident during which a Toyota forklift allegedly hit a fixed object, causing that object to strike and injure the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff allegedly sustained a serious neck injury that required a surgical repair.

As the incident occurred during the course of the Plaintiff’s employment, he was entitled to and did receive worker’s compensation benefits for both medical expenses and indemnity for lost wages. According to the Opinion, the entire worker’s compensation lien was waived by the insurance carrier. The Opinion notes that the Plaintiff also applied for and was awarded Social Security Disability Benefits.

In his pre-trial Motion In Limine, the Plaintiff sought to preclude reference to the Social Security Disability Benefits and the worker’s compensation benefits he received as being inadmissible under Pennsylvania’s Collateral Source Rule.

Although it was the Plaintiff who desired to keep out the amount of these benefits, it was the Plaintiff who, through his vocational expert, who wanted to bring in evidence of his total disability as adjudged by the Social Security Administration and in the worker’s compensation proceedings.

Judge Van Jura noted that the Collateral Source Rule is a rule of evidence that was intended to protect tort victims, by prohibiting a Defendant in a personal injury accident from introducing evidence of the amount of any benefits the Plaintiff may have received from a collateral source for the same injuries.


However, in this matter, it is the Plaintiff who wanted the jury to know that he was receiving these benefits which was a result of a determination that the Plaintiff was indeed disabled within the means of the Social Security Act and the rules pertaining to worker's compensation proceedings. Accordingly, Judge Van Jura found that the purposes of the underlying Collateral Source Rule, i.e., the protection of the Plaintiff and the prevention of a benefit to the alleged wrongdoer, were not implicated in this case. Consequently, the Court noted that such evidence may be admissible in this matter.

But Judge Van Jura did not go so far in ruling. Rather, since the Court noted that it was not in a position to determine the precise manner in which the Plaintiff intended to introduce this evidence at trial, the Court denied the Plaintiff’s Motion as premature.


The Court did state, however, that the Defendant obviously could not initiate the introduction of such evidence of the amount of Social Security or worker’s compensation benefits unless the Plaintiff had “opened the door” for such evidence to come in.



Anyone desiring a copy of this decision may contact me at dancummins@comcast.net.





McDonald v. Whitewater Challengers, Inc., et al. (Luz. Co. 2010 Van Jura, J.)

In the case of McDonald v. Whitewater Challengers, Inc., et al., No. 6750-Civil-2008 (Luz. Co. September 15, 2010, Van Jura, J.), the Court denied a Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment based upon a Plaintiff’s signature on a Release form provided by the Defendant whitewater rafting company.

This matter involved a Plaintiff who was a school teacher and who was required by her employer to chaperone 8th grade school children on a whitewater rafting field trip down the Lehigh River. During the course of that trip, the Plaintiff’s raft struck a large rock, ejected the Plaintiff from the raft and onto a rock, allegedly causing her to sustain personal injuries.

According to the Court's opinion, two days prior to the field trip, the Plaintiff had signed a form “RELEASE OF LIABILITY” which, by its terms, released the Defendants “to the fullest extent permitted by law.”


Judge Van Jura noted that, under Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent, in order for such releases to be binding upon the parties, each party may be a free bargaining agent and the release clause cannot be a contract of adhesion.


While Judge Van Jura noted that there is a slightly different standard applied to releases for purely recreational and sporting activities, as set forth in the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision of Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., __ A.2d __ (Pa. 2010), where it was noted that participants may simply walk away from the recreational activity, in this case, the judge found that the Plaintiff-teacher was “told to sign the Agreement” by the headmaster of her school where she was employed. It was also evidenced that the Plaintiff-teacher was required, as part of her employment, to participate in after school activities, including chaperoning trips.

Given that the Plaintiff signed the release in the context of her employment and as an explicit or implicit requirement or expectation connected with her employment, based upon the record, it could not be said that she was merely free to walk away and refuse to sign the Agreement.


Since the Court was unable to conclude, based upon the evidence, that the Plaintiff signed the release under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment based upon the release form was denied.

Anyone desiring a copy of any of the above cases may contact me at dancummins@comcast.net.

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