Thursday, February 23, 2023

Although Noted To Be "Absurd," the "Dicta" of Spencer v. Johnson Regarding the Fair Share Act Applied in a Monroe County Case

In the case of Ace v. Ace, No. 6242-CIVIL-2020 (C.P. Monroe Co. Jan. 12, 2023 Williamson, J.), the court issued an Opinion in a non-jury trial arising out of a shooting incident and following the entry of default judgments against Defendants who did not appear for the trial.  

Of note, the Court addressed the import of the dicta in the Spencer v. Johnson decision relative to the applicability of the Fair Share Act in a case in which no liability is assessed to a Plaintiff.  Although Judge Williamson noted that the "dicta" in the Spencer v. Johnson contained reasoning that seemed "absurd," he apparently felt compelled to apply it to this case.

By way of background, the court noted that default judgments had been previously entered against the Defendants and that neither Defendant appeared at the time of the non-jury trial at which the only issue was the issue of damages.

The court found that the evidence presented confirmed that the Plaintiff had met his burden of proof with regards to causation and damages. As such, the Court in this non-jury trial found it necessary to apportion liability between the two Defendants for the Plaintiff’s injuries.

Liability was apportioned by the Court to both Defendants.  No percentage of liability was assessed to the Plaintiff. 

Judge David J. Williamson
Monroe County CCP
Judge Williamson then noted that "[t]here has been a lot of confusion recently as to whether or not defendants are subject to joint and several liability for a judgment, regardless of their proportionate share of liability.  See Op. at p. 8.

In making this decision, the Court addressed the history of the Comparative Negligence Act and the Fair Share Act.

Judge Williamson noted that, when passed in 2011, the Fair Share Act was thereafter interpreted by many courts as abolishing joint and several liability in most negligence cases such that defendants would only be responsible for their percentage of negligence assessed by the jury except in those instances where the exceptions under the Act were applicable.

The court noted that, with respect to this case, the exceptions which are found at 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 7102(a.1)(3) applied to one of the defendants in this case relative to that one defendant being found to have engaged in an intentional act and by the fact that that same defendant had been found to be more than 60% liable.

The Court noted, however, that the other Defendant did not fall under any of the exceptions.

Judge Williamson noted that whether subsection (a.1) of the Fair Share Act applied to this case "is now very much in doubt."  See Op. at p. 11.

The Court noted, "The statute heading at 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 7102 is "Comparative negligence."  This is the legal principal (sic) covering when a plaintiff is at fault in some percentage for their own injuries, together with a defendant or defendants.  The Fair Share Act as enacted addresses the situation of a plaintiff who is contributorily negligent at subsection (a), titled as "General rule."  Subsection (a.1) addresses recovery against multiple defendants and is titled "Recovery against joint defendants; contribution."  Subsection (a.1) makes no mention of a plaintiff's contributory negligence."  See Op. at p. 11.

In this regard, Judge Williamson wrote “The legislative intent, in light of an enactment of the Fair Share Act, appears to re-affirm the general rule regarding the contributory negligence of a Plaintiff, and to add provisions regarding the responsibility for an award as to multiple Defendants. It would seem that subsection (a.1) would apply in all cases, including those where a Plaintiff has some level of fault, or no level of fault at all. Otherwise, it would seem likely that the language of subsection (a.1) would have referenced a contributorily negligent Plaintiff if that subsection only applied in instances of comparative negligence attributed to a Plaintiff. To say the legislature enacted a statute to address what was perceived as an unfair result to a big-pocket Defendant following finding of minimal fault against them for injuries caused by multiple Defendants only in cases where Plaintiff is also contributorily negligent, seems like an absurd result. It makes more sense that the legislature would have enacted this measure in all cases of multiple Defendants, even where the Plaintiff has no contributory negligence.”

That being said, Judge Williamson went on to review the contrary result noted in the dicta put forth by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in its Spencer v. Johnson, 249 A.3d 529 (Pa. Super. 2021) decision. Judge Williamson noted that the Superior Court in Johnson analyzed the Fair Share Act and concluded that the legislature only intended for the joint and several provisions of subsection (a.1) to apply in cases where a Plaintiff is also found to have been contributorily negligent. Judge Williamson stated that the Superior Court in Spencer reasoned that, in all other cases, joint and several liability applied regardless of the percentage of fault of each Defendant.

In his decision, Judge Williamson noted that the rationale of the Spencer court regarding Fair Share Act “appears as dicta in the Superior Court’s decision, as it was not the direct holding” of the Superior Court.

Judge Williamson also noted that the Spencer decision “was also a panel decision, and not one made by the entire court sitting en banc.” See Op. at 13.

Judge Williamson also noted that the ruling in Spencer was not appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Based upon Judge Williamson’s review of the Spencer decision, he noted his belief that the Superior Court “would rule that joint and several liability applies to all Defendants without limitations of the Fair Share Act, unless the Plaintiff has some amount of contributory negligence assessed against him or her.” Id.  

Despite noting earlier in his decision that the reasoning as contained in the Spencer decision was "absurd," Judge Williamson, apparently feeling compelled to do so, stated that he would “adhere to the dicta stated in Spencer in this particular case, and find joint and several liability without the application of the Fair Share Act as between both Defendants” given that there was no finding of contributory negligence against the Plaintiff in this case.  

In other words, given that there was no contributory negligence assessed against the Plaintiff in this matter, the Fair Share Act was found not to apply, and the Plaintiff was free to collect the entire verdict from either Defendant even though one Defendant had been assessed with 70% liability and the other Defendant was hit with 30% of the liability.

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

Source: “Digest of Recent Opinions.” Pennsylvania Law Weekly (Feb. 21, 2023).

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