Business groups are celebrating a major change in the law governing damage awards in Pennsylvania. A measure passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Governor Corbett while much of the state was focused on state budget talks.
For years, business groups have complained that someone who sues several parties for damages in a case can collect 100 percent of the award from a single defendant with deep pockets, even if a jury concludes the wealthy defendant was only partially responsible for harm.
Gene Barr of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry cites a case where a man was shot at a pay phone outside a Sheetz convenience store. The family of the victim couldn’t get anything from the shooter, who was broke and in jail, so they sued the Sheetz also.
“All it takes is somebody on that jury saying well, you know maybe Sheetz could have had a little better lighting, or maybe Sheetz should have somebody walking the parking lot, which bring up its own liability issues, or maybe pay phones are inherently dangerous, and maybe you shouldn’t have had one on site,” said Barr. “Sheetz would have been on the hook for a multi-million dollar verdict, so they paid a million dollars to get out of the case.”
So business groups have lobbied the legislature to put an end to what’s called joint and severable liability. Lawmakers voted for it years ago, but Democratic governor Ed Rendell vetoed it. Now with Republicans ruling Harrisburg, it’s law.
But that’s bad news for some like Gerald McHugh, a Philadelphia trial attorney who’s written a textbook on tort law.
He cites the case of a man he represented who was injured riding a bicycle.
“The pedal of the bicycle broke on a downward stroke, and that caused the rider to lose control, pitch forward over the handlebars,” said McHugh.
In this case, the rider was a surgeon who broke both wrists. When he sued, McHugh said, the bike manufacturer tried to blame the shop that actually made the pedals, but it was in Taiwan and wouldn’t respond to an American suit. McHugh said the rules on joint liability kept the bike maker on the hook for the damages.
“Under current law, the manufacturer had the responsibility. Now with the bill just signed by Governor Corbett, in effect the American manufacturer can shift blame overseas and leave the American consumer uncompensated,” said McHugh. “We’re going to see scenarios where people have life-altering injuries and they go uncompensated.”
A note of caution here: While these cases illustrate the arguments of both sides, neither McHugh nor the Chamber would provide party names or other information allowing WHYY to independently verify their accounts of the facts.
The Chamber says the change will make Pennsylvania more business friendly. Trial lawyers say studies don’t bear that out. To some extent, the argument comes down to fairness.
Business groups say it’s unfair to make someone who’s 20 percent responsible for an injury pay 100 percent of the damages. McHugh agrees.
“Yes, it is unfair,” admitted McHugh. “Where there is a difficulty in collecting on a judgment, then someone will be burdened with the difficulty. Historically, the law said that if there’s a hard choice to make, the party that should bear the lose is the wrongdoer and not the victim, but we have to choose upon whom to inflict the burden of that unfairness.”
Gene Barr said the new law won’t let businesses who are egregiously negligent off the hook.
“If someone is found 60 percent liable, they can be found 100 percent liable for all the damages. If it’s found to be an intentional tort then they can be found liable for 100 percent,” said Barr.
Forty other states have enacted laws limiting joint liability.