Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The 2017 TORT TALK TOP TEN


Here is the annual 2017 Tort Talk Top Ten--an annual listing of notable cases and important trends in Pennsylvania civil litigation law over the past year as highlighted in Tort Talk blog posts:

1.         Elements of a Bad Faith Claim
In its decision in the bad faith case of Rancosky v. Washington Nat'l Ins. Co., No. 28 WAP 2016 (Pa. Sept. 28, 2017), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, for the first time, considered the elements of a bad faith claim under 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 8371.

The Supreme Court adopted the two-part test enunciated in the case of Terletsky v. v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 649 A.2d 680 (Pa. Super. 1994), which provides that a plaintiff must present clear and convincing evidence of (1) that the carrier did not have a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy, and (2) that the carrier knew of or recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court went on to confirm that evidence of a motive of self-interest or ill will was not a prerequisite for a Plaintiff to prevail on a statutory bad faith claim. 

The Majority Opinion written by Justice Baer can be reviewed HERE.

Chief Justice Saylor's Concurring Opinion can be viewed HERE.

Justice Wecht's Concurring Opinion can be viewed HERE.


2.         Evidence of Intoxication



In the case of Coughlin v. Massaquoi, No. 32 EAP 2016 (Pa. Sept. 28, 2017), which arose out of a motor vehicle v. pedestrian accident matter, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to adopt a bright-line rule of predicating the admissibility of a person's blood alcohol content (BAC) on the existence of independent corroborating evidence of intoxication.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the admissibility of BAC evidence remains within the trial court's discretion based upon the general rules of admissibility found in the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence 401-403, and the trial court's related assessment of whether the evidence establishes the party's unfitness to act in light of the alleged intoxication.

The Court's Majority Opinion, Concurring Opinion, and Dissenting Opinion can be viewed at this LINK.


3.         Attorney-Client Privilege

In the case of BouSamra v. Excela Health, 2017 Pa. Super. 66 (Pa. Super. March 13, 2017 Bowes, Stabile, Musmanno, J.J.) (Op. by Bowes, J.), the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the granting of a motion to compel surrounding a memorandum prepared by counsel for the defendant that was shared with an outside public relations firm.

The court found that the attorney/client privilege for that memorandum was waived when the client shared the Memorandum with the outside public relations firm.  It was noted that the public relations firm was not a part of the team offering legal advice.  

The court also found that the work product protection was waived for the same reason.  

In its opinion, the Pennsylvania Superior Court stated that the waiver doctrine analysis is essentially the same for both the attorney/client privilege and the work product privilege.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.   


4.         Use of Powerpoint at Trial

In the case of W.C. v. Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 2017 Pa. Super. 356 (Pa. Super. Nov. 13, 2017 Panella, Ransom, Fitzgerald, J.J.) (Op. by Panella, J.), the court ruled that allowing counsel to use powerpoint slides as a visual aid during closing argument was not an abuse of discretion by the trial court.   This was particularly so given that the court found that the slides did not misrepresent the evidence presented at trial.

The Superior Court also held that the powerpoint slides were permissible in the Closing Argument even though the slides had not been admitted into evidence.

Notably, the court also held that opposing counsel had no right to review the materials used in an opponent’s closing argument prior to the presentation of the same.  

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.


5.         Dead Man’s Rule

The Pennsylvania Superior Court’s provided its latest take on the Dead Man’s Statute, 42, Pa. C.S.A. 5930 in the case of Davis v. Wright, 2017 Pa. Super. 48 (Pa. Super. Feb. 27, 2017 Shogan, Ott, J.J., Stevens, P.J.E.)(Op. by Stevens, P.J.E.).

In this matter, arising out of a fatal motor vehicle accident, the Pennsylvania Superior Court found that Dead Man’s Statute was not waived by the Defendant’s participation in discovery when no depositions or Interrogatories were completed.  

The court additionally noted that this defense under the Dead Man’s Statute did not need to be raised as an affirmative defense in a New Matter pursuant to Pa. R.C.P. 1030 in order to be preserved.  
Moreover, the court otherwise noted that the issues of negligence in this automobile accident case could not be established by the testimony of a police officer who did the accident report but who had no independent recollection of the incident.   

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.


6.         Statute of Limitations for a UM Arbitration Case


In the case of Bristol v. Erie, No. 124 MAP 2016 (Pa. Nov. 22, 2017) (Maj. Op. by Mundy, J.) (Wecht, J., Dissenting) the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the statute of limitations in an uninsured motorist case does not begin to run until there is an alleged breach of the insurance contract, i.e., the denial of a claim or a refusal to arbitrate.

 This was a 6-1 decision with Justice David Wecht dissenting on procedural grounds.

The Court delineated the specific issue before it as involving the question of when the statute of limitations begins to runs for a court action in an uninsured (UM) motorist claim arising out of an automobile insurance policy containing an arbitration agreement. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted that this was an issue of first impression in its Court.

The Bristol decision reverses the Pennsylvania Superior Court's previous ruling in Hopkins v. Erie, which held that the statute of limitations in an uninsured motorist (UM) benefits claim begins to run on the date of the accident.

In its analysis, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted that the mandates of Pennsylvania statute of limitations law provide that the statute of limitations begins to run from the time a cause of action accrues or arises. 

The Supreme Court noted that a cause of action in a UM context accrues or arises when a carrier is alleged to have breached its contract of insurance.  The Court more specifically held that an uninsured motorist (UM) claim begins when a carrier denies the claim or refuses to arbitrate.

Given that the carrier had not denied coverage or refused to arbitrate in this particular case, the court ruled that the lower courts had erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the carrier on its statute of limitations argument.

The Majority Opinion from Bristol can be read HERE.

Justice Wecht's Dissenting Opinion can be viewed HERE.


7.         Cell Phone Use in a Motor Vehicle Accident




Another recurring issue in civil litigation matters that continued over the past year is the extent to which cell phone use by a defendant during the course of an accident can support a claim for punitive damages.

In a detailed Order issued by Judge Kimberly J. McFadden of the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas in the case of Figueroa v. Ferraira, No. C-48-CV-2017-833 (C.P. Northampton Co. June 8, 2017 McFadden, J.), the court allowed a claim punitive damages to proceed beyond the Preliminary Objections stage in a case where the Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant rear ended the Plaintiff's vehicle at a red light at an excessive rate of speed and while texting.

The court noted that the defense retained the right to revisit the issue at the summary judgment stage should it be determined that the Plaintiff had not produced evidence in support of this claim.

Anyone wishing to review this decision may click this LINK.

In the Federal Court case  of Knecht v. Balanescu, No. 4:16-CV-00549 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 30, 2017 Mehalchick, Mag. J.), the court held that evidence of a plaintiff’s cell phone use and texting was sufficiently close to the accident as to be admissible at trial.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.


8.         Limited Tort

In its latest review of limited tort law in the case of Vetter v. Miller, 2017 Pa. Super. 64 (Pa. Super. March 10, 2017) (Ransom, J., Ford Elliot, P.J.E., Stephens, P.J.E.) (Op. by Ransom, J.), the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court's decision that a Plaintiff's insomnia did not amount to a serious impairment of a body function for a limited tort Plaintiff under the facts presented.  

This decision was also notable for the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s analysis of what types of motor vehicle accident related criminal charges may be admissible in a subsequent civil case.   The court noted that all motor vehicle code violations are not of equal gravity.  

The court in Vetter more specifically noted that, while evidence of a conviction of driving while intoxicated may be admissible if supported by ample evidence of intoxication, a guilty plea of driving with a suspended license was only a summary offense that should not have been admitted in the court below.

 Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK

9.         Post-Koken Issues

A number of recurring issues in Post-Koken automobile accident matters continued to be litigated across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 

There continues to be an almost equal split of authority amongst the trial courts across Pennsylvania on whether a Post-Koken litigation should be severed or bifurcated into two separate matters, one being the third party negligence action and the second being the breach of contract UIM litigation. 

The trend in the non-bad faith cases appears to be to allow the cases to remain together during the course of discovery but there remains a split of authority on whether the cases should be bifurcated for purposes of trial.

To date, other than the Pennsylvania Superior Court case of Stepanovich v. McGraw and State Farm, which touched upon the issue but did not definitively decide the issue, there has been no appellate guidance on the issue of severance or bifurcation.  The Stepanovich decision suggests, but did not decide, that Post-Koken claims could be tried together. 

Unfortunately, in 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court inexplicably denied allocatur in Stepanovich, thereby squandering a great opportunity to provide the bench and the bar with much needed guidance on important Post-Koken issues.

In Post-Koken cases involving bad faith claims, there is still no appellate guidance on severance or bifurcation and/or stay orders relative to the bad faith claims.  There is a split of authority amongst the trial courts, but the federal courts seem to be trending towards denying motions to sever and stay bad faith claims.

Please check out the Tort Talk Post-Koken Scorecard at this LINK to review the cases in this regard.


10.       Jury Instructions in Post-Tincher Products Liability Cases

Here is a LINK to a set of Products Liability Suggested Standard Jury Instructions drafted by members of the Products Liability Committee of the Pennsylvania Defense Institute and which has been published in the October, 2017 edition of Counterpoint, a PDI publication.   The Committee was led in this regard by William J. Ricci, Esquire, C. Scott Toomey, Esquire, and James M. Beck, Esquire.

These suggested jury instructions were drafted in response to the proposed instructions for products cases issued in the summer of 2016 by the civil instructions subcommittee of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee for Proposed Standard Jury Instructions.


The debate over proper instructions for products cases arises out of the differing opinions as to the import and analysis of the Tincher v. Omega Flex case.



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