Monday, March 27, 2023

Court Addresses A Number of Notable Trial Issues in a Shooting Case That May Apply In Many Other Types of Civil Litigation Trials

In the case of Rogers v. Thomas, No. 1915 MDA 2018 (Pa. Super. March 2, 2023)(en banc) (Op. by Stabile, J.)(Concurring Op. by Kunselman, J.), the court addressed a number of post-trial issues following a multi-day wrongful death and survival action jury trial arising out of a fatal shooting incident.

Of note, the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed whether the doctrine of collateral estoppel applied to the shooter’s criminal conviction arising out of the same incident so as to conclusively establish the shooter’s liability in this civil litigation. In the end, the court found that, under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, the shooter’s conviction for voluntary manslaughter conclusively established the facts that were determined in his criminal trial relative to the shootings.  

However, the appellate court in this civil litigation confirmed that the results of the criminal trial did not answer the questions of causation or comparative fault in this personal injury matter.  Rather, those questions remained to be determined in this civil trial before a jury could consider whether or not to award damages. See Op. at 11-12.

In so ruling, the Pennsylvania Superior Court provided a detailed recitation of Pennsylvania precedent on the effect of collateral estoppel upon civil proceedings following a previous criminal conviction.

The court also addressed the issue of whether the concept of comparative negligence applies in cases where a Defendant has engaged in intentional or reckless conduct as was alleged in this matter.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court noted that, “[a]lthough our Supreme Court has not addressed the issue, both this Court and our sister court, the Commonwealth court, have held that the Comparative and Negligence Act does not apply in a situation where a Plaintiff may be guilty of negligence, but a Defendant has acted recklessly.”  See Op. at 22 [citations omitted].

Here, the shooter argued that the Plaintiffs were wrong in arguing that the doctrine of comparative negligence should not have been applied. The shooter argued that there had never been any determination in any court that the conduct of the shooter was found to be “willful, wanton, or reckless.” 

The Superior Court noted that the plain language of the criminal statute pertaining to voluntary manslaughter did not contain any requirement of a finding that a person acted recklessly to be guilty of that crime.

The court went on to note that, even though the shooter may have acted intentionally, there still remained a question as to whether or not the shooter was justified in believing that his actions were in self-defense and, as such, potentially not reckless. 

The court confirmed that a person may have been found to have acted intentionally, but that does not necessarily mean that they also acted recklessly. 

As such, the Superior Court in this Rogers case found that the Plaintiffs were incorrect in asserting that intentional conduct necessarily covers reckless conduct.  See Op. at 23-24.

This decision is also notable in that the court found that the Plaintiffs had waived a number of issues by failing to follow the appellate rules establishing the procedures necessary to preserve issues for appeal.

In one instance, the court found that the Plaintiffs had waived their challenge to the trial court’s previous coordination order in which a Lackawanna County lawsuit was coordinated with a Susquehanna County lawsuit.  In this regard, the Pennsylvania Superior Court noted that the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure 311(c) allows a party in a civil action to take an interlocutory appeal as of right from an Order changing venue and/or transferring a case to another court of coordinated jurisdiction, or declining to proceed in the matter on the basis of forum non conveniens.

The court noted that a failure to lodge an interlocutory appeal in this scenario constitutes a waiver in any subsequent appeal of related challenges to decisions by the court.

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

The Concurring Opinion by Judge Kunselman can be viewed HERE.

I send thanks to Attorney Gary Weber of the Williamsport, Pa law firm of Mitchell Gallagher, P.C. for bringing this case to my attention.

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