Monday, March 26, 2012

Judge Terrence R. Nealon of Lackawanna County Addresses Prerequisites for Discovery on Defendant's Finances in Punitive Damages Case

In his recent March 9, 2012 detailed Ordered issued in the case of Genevich v. T.S.E., Inc. Utility & General Contracting, No. 09-Civil-5119 (C.P. March 9, 2012 Nealon, J.), Judge Terrence R. Nealon of the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas addressed the issues presented by a Plaintiff’s “Motion for Leave to Conduct Punitive Damages Discovery (Financial Work Discovery) of a Defendant in a Personal Injury Litigation.”

This matter arose out of an accident that occurred while the Plaintiff was working underneath a sidewalk area.  The Plaintiff alleged that one of the Defendants allegedly caused the sidewalk area to collapse down into the area where the Plaintiff was working, allegedly resulting in personal injuries. The Plaintiff sued various Defendants and asserted punitive damages claims.

In his detailed Order, Judge Nealon reviewed Pa. R.C.P. 4003.7 which governs the discovery of a Defendant’s wealth in connection with a claim for punitive damages. That Rule specifically states that a party may obtain information concerning the wealth of a Defendant in a claim for punitive damages only upon an Order of Court setting forth appropriate restrictions as to that type of discovery.

Judge Nealon referred to prior decisions out of the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas on which the Court had held that Rule 4003.7 retains a common law requirement that a Plaintiff must first demonstrate a prima facie right to recover punitive damages before such financial discovery would be ordered.

The court noted that the maintenance of the prima facie showing protects the privacy rights of a Defendant by ensuring that there is some factual basis for the Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim before a Defendant will be compelled to divulge confidential financial information to an opponent in a lawsuit.

Applying the law to the facts of this matter, the court noted that, while the Plaintiffs had alleged allegations of willful, wanton, and reckless conduct, the Plaintiff had not specifically demanded any punitive damages in the Complaint.

As such, Judge Nealon found that there was no existing punitive damages claim in the case before him to support an allowance of discovery of the Defendant’s finances. Accordingly, the court denied the Plaintiff’s request for financial work discovery without prejudice to the Plaintiff’s right to later seek out such discovery in the event the Plaintiff was granted leave of court to amend his Complaint to include a specific claim for punitive damages.

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

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