Wednesday, December 30, 2015

ARTICLE: A Year of Changes in Civil Litigation

This article of mine appeared in the December 15, 2015 edition of the Pennsylvania Law Weekly and is republished here with permission:

A Year of Changes in Civil Litigation


, The Legal Intelligencer/Pennsylvania Law Weekly         
            
There were a number of notable developments in Pennsylvania civil litigation law over the past year in terms of decisions and at least one rule change. Here's a look back at some of those changes in 2015.

Jurors and Social Media

Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in keeping up with the changing times, amended Rule 220.1, pertaining to "Preliminary Instructions to Prospective and Selected Jurors," by expanding the need to instruct jurors to refrain from researching the case at hand through social media.

Previously, these types of instructions were generally reserved for those jurors actually selected and sitting in the jury box at trial. The new amendments require the trial court judge to also provide such instructions to persons in the general jury pool even before they reach a particular courtroom for jury selection.

The amendments place emphasis on advising such jurors of the prohibitions against using computer or mobile devices in a manner that may violate the instructions of the court during trial, including instructions on not discussing or researching the case presented.

Statute of Limitations in Limited Tort Cases

In an interesting opinion in the case of Varner-Mort v. Kapfhammer, 109 A.3d 244 (Pa. Super. 2015), the Superior Court addressed the proper application of the statute of limitations and the discovery rule in the context of limited tort cases.

In Varner-Mort, the limited tort plaintiff filed suit after the expiration of the statute of limitation but argued, under the discovery rule, that she did not "discover" that she had a serious injury until some point in time after the accident such that the lawsuit was timely filed under an application of the discovery rule.

Despite noting that precedent in this regard was just "plain wrong," this panel of the Superior Court nevertheless reluctantly agreed to apply the discovery rule and reversed the entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendant on the statute of limitations issue.

Independent Medical Examinations

A number of trial court decisions were handed down over the past year pertaining to the permissible parameters of independent medical examinations (IMEs).

In the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas case of Shearer v. Hafer, No. 2012-01286 (C.P. Leb. Co. March 17, 2015 Charles, J.), Judge Bradford Charles ruled in favor of a defense discovery motion to compel a neuropsychological IME, with the parameters being that the plaintiff's attorney would be allowed to be present during the preliminary interview phase by the doctor of the plaintiff but not thereafter.

In the case of Trojanowicz v. Ford Motor, No. 2013 - CV - 223 (C.P. Lacka. Co. Feb. 10, 2015 Minora, J.), Judge Carmen D. Minora, citing Pa.R.C.P. 4010, noted that whether or not to allow multiple examinations by an IME expert was a decision left to the broad discretion of the trial court. Given that the psychiatric IME doctor wrote in his initial report that he was able to come to accurate conclusions and opinions based upon the review he had completed to date, Minora found that additional testing would not be allowed.

In the case of Feld v. Primus Technologies, 2015 U.S. Dist. Lexis 55270 (M.D. Pa. April 28, 2015 Brann, J.), U. S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann of the Middle District Court of Pennsylvania relied upon Fed.R.E. 703 in ruling that defendants in tort litigation may rely upon, and refer to, independent medical examinations of the plaintiff prepared in separate worker's compensation proceedings. The court denied a plaintiff's motion in limine in this regard reasoning that, even though the previous IME reports may be arguably biased, those reports were the kind of records that a medical expert would typically and legitimately rely upon, i.e, the records of other doctors, in formulating their own opinions on the case presented.

Cross-Examination of Witnesses

In 2015, decisions were handed down clarifying the extent to which expert and lay witnesses could be impeached on cross-examination at trial.

In Flenke v. Huntington, 111 A.3d 1197 (Pa. Super. 2015), the Superior Court ruled that, while expert witnesses may be impeached for bias, including frequent work for the same side in litigation or for insurance carriers, there are limits to such cross-examination.

More specifically, the court limited the cross-examination of the expert to those issues germane to the case at hand and evidence of bias related thereto. As such, the court place certain limits on the extent to which an expert could be cross-examined on compensation earned in litigation matters.

With respect to lay witnesses, in a detailed order issued in the case of Detrick v. Burrus, No. 2011 CV 1333 (C.P. Lacka. Co. Feb. 23, 2015 Nealon, J.), Judge Terrence R. Nealon addressed a motion in limine filed by the plaintiff in an automobile accident suit seeking to preclude evidence of a post-accident drug screen ordered by the plaintiff's treating doctor that contained a positive result for marijuana use.

In his opinion, Nealon noted that questions which concerned the admissibility of evidence lie within with sound discretion of the trial court and would not be disturbed on appeal absent a clear abuse of that discretion. Nealon also held that evidence utilized to impeach the credibility of a witness is admissible so long as it is relevant to that purpose and not otherwise barred. The court relied upon the law that a witness may not be impeached or contradicted on a "collateral" matter.

In automobile accident personal injury case, the plaintiff denied, during her deposition testimony, that she used marijuana. The court precluded the defense efforts to cross-examine the plaintiff at trial with the plaintiff's drug screen that was positive for marijuana use.

In so ruling, Nealon noted that the Pennsylvania appellate courts have repeatedly held that "no witness can be contradicted on everything he testifies to in order to 'test his credibility.' The pivotal issues in a trial cannot be 'sidetracked' for the determination of whether or not a witness lied in making a statement about something that has no relationship to the case on trial."

Obamacare and the Collateral Source Rule

A recent trend in Pennsylvania personal injury matters involves defense counsel pointing to the Affordable Care Act to support an argument against any recovery of alleged medical expenses claimed by the plaintiff. The argument is that such expenses are or will be covered by insurance under the Affordable Care Act and therefore, they need not be awarded by a jury.

Plaintiffs argue that the well-settled collateral source rule should preclude any mention of any benefits from a collateral source in an effort to preclude or diminish the recovery of compensation from the alleged wrongdoer.

The issue of whether the defense in a personal injury litigation may refer to the Affordable Care Act during the course of a jury trial was addressed in the case of Deeds v. University of Pennsylvania, 110 A.3d 1009(Pa. Super. 2015). On appeal, the plaintiff argued, in part, that she was "entitled to a new trial because the trial court violated the collateral source rule when it 'improperly allowed [the defendants] to inform the jury that [the plaintiffs'] substantial medical needs were all being attended to at little to no cost to [the plaintiffs'] legal guardian due to the existence of state and federal education and medical benefits programs." The defense referred to Medicaid as well as to how Obama's Affordable Care Act would impact the future care costs in the case.

The Superior Court found these references at trial to be a patent violation of the long-standing collateral source rule, the purpose of which is to "avoid the preclusion or diminution of the damages otherwise recoverable from the wrongdoer based on compensation recovered from a collateral source," and, as such, remanded the case for a new trial.

Notable Shift in Bad Faith Cases

Representing a monumental shift in thinking in bad faith cases, in the case of Wolfe v. Allstate Property & Casualty Insurance, 790 F.3d 487 (3d Cir. 2015), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that it was not bad faith for a third party liability carrier not to include its insured's exposure to punitive damages in a settlement.

In Wolfe, the Third Circuit remanded an excess verdict bad faith case back for a new trial after ruling that the jury was impermissibly allowed to consider, in this subsequent bad faith claim, the amount of the punitive damages awarded against the tortfeasor at the trial of the underlying third party lawsuit.

In her opinion, Judge Marjorie O. Rendell wrote, "We predict that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would conclude that, in an action by an insured against his insurer for bad faith, the insured may not collect as compensatory damages the punitive damages awarded against it in the underlying lawsuit. Therefore, the punitive damages award was not relevant in the later [bad faith] suit and should not have been admitted."

The Third Circuit in Wolfe notably stated that "[i]t follows from our reasoning that [a liability] insurer has no duty to consider the potential for a jury to return a verdict for punitive damages when it is negotiating a settlement of a case. To impose that duty would be tantamount to making the insurer responsible for those damages, which, as we have discussed, is against public policy."

A Look Ahead in Post-'Koken' Matters

Another year has passed without an opportunity for the appellate courts to address any of the novel procedural and substantive legal issues that challenge the commonwealth's trial court judges. Hopefully, the next year will be the one where these issues begin to go up the appellate ladder and result in appellate guidance that will serve to assist both the bench and the bar. •


Special to the Law Weekly Daniel E. Cummins is a partner and civil litigator with the Scranton law firm of Foley Comerford & Cummins. His civil litigation blog, Tort Talk, can be viewed at www.TortTalk.com.  Attorney Cummins can be reached at dancummins@comcast.net.

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