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Important case summaries

These important case notes were compiled by Dale Larrimore for the Annual Update CLE seminar and distributed at the October 2003 Auto Law Section meeting


No First Party Benefits For Uninsured Motorist

The owner of a registered uninsured vehicle cannot recover medical and wage loss benefits for injuries from a motor vehicle crash, even if injuries are sustained in an insured vehicle.

Swords v. Harleysville Insurance Co., 2003 PA Super 302, (Aug. 19, 2003).

Plaintiff Wayne Swords was the owner of an uninsured motor vehicle.  He was injured in a motor vehicle accident while riding in a car owned by his father, who was insured with  Pennland Insurance Company, a carrier associated with Harleysville.  Swords commenced this litigation to compel Harleysville to provide medical and wage loss benefits, since he was occupying that car at the time of the accident.  Relying on a prior decision of the Superior Court, Kafando v. State Farm Mutual Insurance Co., the Court of Common Pleas of Lancaster County granted partial summary judgment to Swords.  On appeal, this en banc panel of the Superior Court, per Klein, J., overruled the court’s 1998 decision in Kafando, in which a three judge panel had held that an uninsured motorist could receive first party benefits from another’s policy.  In Swords, the Court held that the Legislature clearly intended insurance benefits to follow the person, not the vehicle and, therefore, since Swords was the owner of an uninsured vehicle, he could not recover medical or lost wage benefits from the insurance on the car he was riding.


Limited Tort Pedestrian

Limited tort individual injured as a pedestrian, struck by a motor vehicle, is still bound by the limited tort election.

L.S. v. Eschbach, 2003 PA Super 128 (3/28/03) Klein, Johnson, Gracci, J.J. (Petition for Reqrgument filed 4/4/2023)

Minor plaintiff was a pedestrian who was injured from being struck by a motor vehicle. L.S. was covered under a policy in which her mother had elected the limited tort option.  The issue was whether the limited tort option applies when the injured person is a pedestrian, rather than a driver or occupant of a motor vehicle.

Plaintiff argued that §§ 1705(a)(1) and 1705(b)(2) express the intent of the legislature that the limited tort election should not apply to a pedestrian, since the inclusion of the words, “other drivers” & “in which the insured is an occupant” require the insured to be injured in a motor vehicle accident with a second vehicle, and to be occupying a vehicle. 

The Superior Court rejected this reasoning and looked at §1705Id) which states, among other things, that one who elects limited tort can seek compensation for loss “sustained in a motor vehicle accident” and the tort election applies to other insureds under the policy.  The court concluded that its interpretation of the statutes was supported by other statutory provisions, such as §§1705( c) and (d) and concluded that the legislature clearly meant the tort election to apply to motor vehicle accidents which may include one or more vehicles.

Exception For Non-MVA Injuries

A limited tort plaintiff who is injured due to a defective roadway, and not by the negligence of another motor vehicle operator, is not bound by the limited tort election and may seek recovery of non-economic damages in the absence of a serious injury.     

Schrecengost v. Bertolini, Indiana County, No. 12185 CD 1999 (10/24/2002) Martin, PJ

Plaintiff was injured when driving on a private roadway that collapsed, causing her vehicle to turn over.  Plaintiff sued the owners of the property and filed a Motion in Limine for a determination that her election of limited tort on her insurance policy would not be binding in this litigation, because she was not injured in an “automobile accident.” Defendant countered that §1705(d) binds plaintiff because the accident could be considered an automobile accident caused by the fault of another. 

The Court granted plaintiff’s motion and cited §§ 1705(a) and 1791.1(b), both referring to compensation caused by “other drivers.”  The Court reasoned that because the plaintiff was injured because of the instability of the roadway, rather than by another driver, the limited tort election was not binding in this case.


There is no right to a jury trial in a claim for Section 8371 bad faith damages.

Mishoe v. Erie Insurance Co., 824 A.2d 1153 (Pa., May 30, 2023)

The Supreme Court held that there is no right to a jury trial in a Section 8371 bad faith case.  The use of the word “court” by the legislature in 42 Pa.C.S. §8371, is interpreted to mean a judge sitting without a jury.

       Bad Faith

An insured is not entitled to bad faith damages for discovery abuses by insurance carrier in handling litigation on a bad faith claim

W.V. Realty, Inc. v. Northern Insurance Co. of New York, 334 F.3d 306 (3d. Cir. 2003).

Although not a motor vehicle insurance case, this decision is of interest to any attorney handling a bad faith claim against a motor vehicle insurance carrier.  After an snow caused the roof of a banquet hall to collapse, the owner made a claim against its insurance carrier for property damage and business interruption losses.  Although the building coverage was paid fairly promptly, the business interruption loss was not resolved and this litigation was filed for insurance coverage and bad faith damages.   In discovery, plaintiff requested copies of all lawsuits filed against Northern Insurance for bad faith and claims where co-insurance penalties were applied.  Northern responded that there were none.  After plaintiffs themselves found fifteen bad faith cases involving Northern, they filed a motion for sanctions.  The Court found that Northern's conduct was unreasonable and awarded sanctions to plaintiffs.  At trial, plaintiffs' counsel was permitted to introduce evidence of this discovery abuse.  The jury ultimately awarded $650,000 in punitive damages to plaintiffs.

While the Third Circuit recognized that bad faith is actionable regardless of whether it occurs before, during or after litigation, insureds may not recover under Pennsylvania's bad faith statute for discovery abuses by an insurer in defending a claim predicated on its alleged prior bad faith handling of an insurance claim.  Where discovery abuses are part of conduct indicating that the insurer intended to evade its obligations under the insurance contract, they may support a claim for additional damages.  But, where the conduct in discovery are not part of an attempt to prolong the investigation of the claim, as opposed to merely winning the lawsuit filed against it, such conduct does not constitute bad faith.

The Third Circuit affirmed in part, vacated and remanded in part for a new trial.


Insurance Agent Binds Insurer

An insurance company was bound by the statements of its agent that were contrary to the language of the insurance policy because the insured had no reason to believe that the statements of the agent conflicted with the language of the policy.  There is no inherent duty to read the policy.

Pressley v. Travelers Prop. Cas. Corp., 2003 Pa. Super. 58.

Evans (owner of Evans Agency) regularly submitted applications for homeowners, automobile, and other policies of insurance for Aetna Property and Casualty Insurance ("Aetna").  Aetna recently merged with or into Travelers.  Plaintiff Pressley only personally met Evans one time in 1994 when he was called by a Harrisburg auto dealer to provide insurance coverage for a Ford Escort she purchased in February 1994.  Through the years, Pressley purchased automobile and homeowners policies through Evans.  In a January 26, 1997, telephone call, Pressley informed Evans that her mother, Mary Brown, was a driver of a vehicle listed on the policy.  Evans advised that because Brown was the primary driver of the vehicle, she should be added to Pressley’s insurance policy so that she would be covered by Pressley’s insurance.  Pressley agreed with Evans’s advice and instructed Evans to add her mother to her policy.  Pressley asked that her mother have the precise coverage that she had on the policy.  Evans said that he would add Brown to Pressley’s insurance policy with the same exact coverage that Pressley had.  Evans assured Pressley that this addition would be made effective that same day. 

Evans never asked Pressley where Brown lived or if Brown lived with Pressley.  Brown did not live with Pressley.  Pressley reasonably relied on the assurances of Evans that her mother had the same coverage as her, effective on January 26, 1997, irrespective of Brown’s residence.  At the conclusion of the phone call, Evans requested that when Pressley mailed in her next renter’s insurance premium that she also forward her mother’s Social Security Number and Pennsylvania driver’s license number for his file.  At no time did Evans ever tell Pressley that this requested information was required as a precondition to coverage before he could add Brown to Pressley’s policy.

Evans failed to add Brown to Pressley’s policy as promised on January 26, 1997.  On March 16, 1997, Brown was killed when she was struck by a drunk driver.  On March 17, 1997, Pressley called Evans to inform him that her mother had been killed, and asked him how she could recover benefits because Pressley believed that Brown was covered by her insurance since January 26, 1997.  At first Evans denied that Brown was covered by the policy because he never received Brown’s Social Security Number and driver’s license number.  Evans then acknowledged that he had promised to add Brown to the policy on January 26, 1997.  At no time did Evans question Pressley as to where Brown resided and he assumed they resided together.

On March 17, 1997, after learning of Brown’s death, Evans telephoned Travelers and attempted to have Brown added to Pressley’s policy.  Evans specifically asked the Travelers’ representative to backdate the effective date of Brown’s addition to Pressley’s policy so it would be effective as of January 26, 1997.  The Travelers’ computer system was unable to backdate the effective date of Brown’s addition to Pressley’s policy to January 26, 1997, but at the request of Evans, Travelers added Brown as a listed driver on the policy, retroactively with an effective date of March 11, 1997, five days prior to Brown’s death, making her or her estate eligible for benefits under the policy.

On March 23, 1997, Attorney Homer Walton, a friend of Pressley’s, discussed the terms of Brown’s coverage with Evans.  Walton asked Evans about the coverage available for Brown under Pressley’s policy. Evans acknowledged that there was first-party benefits coverage for Brown because she was on Pressley’s policy.  When asked about underinsurance coverage, Evans said there was no UIM coverage because Pressley never forwarded Brown’s Social Security Number and driver’s license number as requested.

Upon learning that there was a potential UIM claim, Travelers made no more acknowledgments of coverage and Thomas Lighthall from Travelers sent a letter to Pressley on March 31, 1997, saying that the claim was being investigated.  Mr. Lighthall sent a Reservation of Rights letter to Pressley advising her that Travelers was conducting an investigation of the claim and was reserving all rights under the policy.  Travelers subsequently filed a declaratory judgment action.  At the close of a non-jury trial, the Judge found in favor of Pressley on the grounds that Evans, acting as an agent for Travelers, bound Travelers to an insurance contract with all of the rights of Pressley’s insurance contract.  Evans and Travelers appealed.  The Superior Court agreed with the trial judge that the reasonable expectations of Pressley in her reliance on Evans were more important than the language of her insurance contract.

The Superior Court stated that when the insurer elects to issue a policy differing from what the insured requested and paid for, there is clearly a duty to advise the insured of the changes so made.  The burden is not on the insured to read the policy to discover such changes.  At no time did Evans indicate to Pressley that her policy differed from the requested coverage, that is, coverage for Brown under Pressley’s policy identical to Pressley’s coverage.  Without any indication of change, the Superior Court agreed with the trial court that Pressley was under no obligation to read the policy.  The Superior Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court.



Vehicle registered as Special Mobile Equipment is not a motor vehicle, even where it regularly travels on major highways, transports humans & property, is powered by an internal combustion engine and does not use either rails or tracks.

Rissi v. W.C.A.B. (Tony DePaul & Son), 808 A.2d 274 (Pa.Commw. 2002), Petition for Allowance of Appeal Denied, 2003 WL 21230511 (PA, May 28, 2023)

The Commonwealth Court held that a vehicle registered with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation as “special mobile equipment” (carrying a license tag starting with the prefix “SME”) is not a motor vehicle.  In this case, the vehicle in question was a street sweeper and the WCJ found as a fact that the street sweeper was driven on highways and roads to job sites at speeds of up to 50 mph, that the sweeper was driven on roads to dump sites to dump the accumulated debris, that the sweeper would be used on occasion to transport various workers to the job site.  The WCJ made a specific finding of fact “the vehicle [the sweeper] regularly travels on major highways ...transports both humans and property... is powered by an internal combustion engine and does not use either rails or tracks.”  Based on these facts, WCJ Beckett held that the street sweeper is both a “vehicle” and a “motor vehicle” within the definition of the Motor Vehicle Code, and that, therefore, the employer had no subrogation rights to the claimant’s third party recovery under §1720 of the Act.  The WCAB reversed and the Commonwealth Court affirms the opinion of the WCAB, holding that the sweeper is not a “motor vehicle” just because it was registered and licensed as “special mobile equipment.”

PROCEDURE - Statute of Limitations

An action is commenced by “filing” documents with the prothonotary.  A document is “filed” when received by the prothonotary, regardless of when it is later time-stamped. 

Griffin v. Central Sprinkler Corporation, 2003 PA Super 160 (4/25/2003)

Plaintiff was injured in an April 18, 2023 motor vehicle accident.  On April 13, 1999, counsel for plaintiff mailed a praecipe for writ of summons to Montgomery County Prothonotary’s Office.  It was later time stamped and docketed at 8:31 am on Tuesday, October 20, 1999.  On June 21, 2000, plaintiff filed a petition to backdate the praecipe, attaching an affidavit memorializing a 4/26/03 telephone conversation between counsel’s secretary and Joe Giannetti, the First Deputy Protnonotary of Montgomery County, in which Mr. Giannetti indicated that the “prothonotary’s office had been backed up and that they were just stating to work on mail received on April 23, 1999.  In furtherance of the Petition, counsel also deposed Mr. Giannetti, who admitted that the time stamp in question did not necessarily indicate that the praecipe had arrived on the 20th, but rather the date it was processed and docketed.  Mr. Giannetti testified that there were times when the prothy’s office would be a day or two behind in processing mail.  However, ultimately, the Petition was dismissed and defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the statute of limitations was granted by the Lower Court.

The Superior Court vacated and remanded for a continuation of the proceedings.  The Court noted that:

“the term ‘file’ cannot be completely equated with the purely ministerial act of docketing the receipt of a legal document.  Rather, the act of “filing” a document ... focuses as much, if not more, upon the act of the litigant in placing the document in the hands of the appropriate ministerial office, than in the actual act of docketing the receipt of the document.”

While time-stamping provides conclusive proof that the item was received in the prothy’s office no later than the time stamped on the document, the opposite premise is not true. The Court was persuaded by the deposition of Mr. Giannetti and the other evidence in the record that the praecipe in the case at bar was “filed” prior to the expiration of the S/L.

PROCEDURE - Statute of Limitations

Motor vehicle negligence claim accrues on the date of the injury, rather than on the date when it is discovered that medical bills exceed first party medical benefits.

Haines v. Jones, 2003 PA Super 283, 2003 WL 21752845 (Pa.Super. 7/30/2003).

On October 27, 1998, Stacia Haines was stopped in her car, waiting for a car in front of her to make a left turn.  While stopped, she was hit in the rear by a vehicle driven by defendant, Jennifer Jones. As a result of the crash, the plaintiff suffered cervical subluxation and she had frequent migraine headaches.  She had limited tort insurance, and $10,000 in first party medical coverage applicable to this accident.  Because she had treated regularly with a chiropractor, and had been referred to a neurologist, Ms. Haines requested a copy of her insurance file on October 11, 2000, and discovered that her medical bills at that time were only about $5,000.  Since she had not suffered a "serious injury" and since she had not exhausted her first party coverage, she did not sue the defendant within the two year statute of limitations for negligence claims.

Thereafter, her doctors recommended additional treatment and by November of 2001, Stacia Haines had exhausted her $10,000 medical benefits under her policy.  At that point, she had to begin paying for the costs of her medical care and she filed this suit against Jennifer Jones in October of 2001, asking for compensatory damages for medical expenses in excess of the $10,000 in first party medical coverage that was now exhausted. Defendant filed for summary judgment based on the statute of limitations.  Plaintiff argued that her cause of action did not accrue until she knew, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have known, that her actual medical expenses would exceed her $10,000 in first party coverage. The Indiana County CP Court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment.

On appeal, the Superior Court affirms, and distinguishes this issue from Walls v. Scheckler, 700 A.2d 532 (1997), where the Superior Court held that the discovery rule tolled the statute of limitations until a plaintiff knew, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have known, that she suffered a "serious injury."  In Walls v. Scheckler, the plaintiff's injury changed and became more serious as time passed and she had no cause of action until she could have known she sustained a serious injury.  Here, the plaintiff could have started suit within 2 years and "retained medical experts to calculate and testify as to the present and future medical needs and their attendant costs."  The court holds that the statute of limitations began to run as of the date of the injury, not the date the plaintiff knew or should have known that her medical bills will exceed her first party coverage.


A defendant’s motion for change of venue was granted where the plaintiff did not contest the facts in the motion and it was clear that there was a more convenient forum.

Mateu v. Stout, 819 A.2d 563, 2003 Pa. Super. 93 (3/10/2023), Joyce, Bender and Beck, JJ.

Plaintiff, a resident of Delaware County, filed this action in Philadelphia County as a result of a vehicle crash that occurred in Delaware County in September 2000.  In March 2002, prior to conducting any discovery, Appellees Stout and Strigle filed a petition to transfer venue from Philadelphia County to Delaware County.  In their petition to transfer venue, defendants averred that transfer is warranted because the action would be more conveniently located in Delaware County.  Specifically, defendants averred that Delaware County would provide easier access to sources of proof, to the location of both the fact and medical witnesses (including plaintiff and Strigle), to the location of medical records, and to the site of the automobile.

On March 21, 2002, plaintiff filed an answer to the petition to transfer venue, admitting that she and Strigle resided in Delaware County, that the accident occurred in Delaware County, and that American Independent Insurance Company (AIIC), Appellee’s codefendant, was located outside of Philadelphia County.  Plaintiff did not respond to the averments that Delaware County would provide easier access to the sources of proof, the fact and medical witnesses, the medical records, and the site of the accident.  Instead, plaintiff asserted that defendants failed to develop a detailed factual record in support of their petition to transfer venue.

The trial court granted the petition for change of venue.  On appeal, the Superior Court stated that its standard of review of a change of venue was abuse of discretion.  The Superior Court stated that if any proper basis exists for a trial court’s decision to transfer venue, the decision of the trial court must not be disturbed.  The Superior Court said that the trial court relied on many factors when making its decision and that record is devoid of any dispute as to the factors.  Because there was no dispute, the Superior Court took the Appellees’ facts as true.  These facts established that all of the parties, as well as the identified fact witnesses, reside outside of Philadelphia County.  In addition, Appellant’s medical witness is located within Delaware County and all of her medical treatment was rendered in Delaware County.

The Superior Court found no abuse of discretion and affirmed the order of the trial court granting a change of venue.  However, the Superior Court reversed the order of the trial court requiring the Appellant to pay the costs and fees associated with the petition to transfer venue because venue was transferred on the basis of forum non conveniens, which, under Pa.R.C.P. 1006(d), requires the party filing the petition to pay all costs.


A trial court may properly transfer venue to another county after a corporate defendant, whose presence in the case permitted the original choice of venue, is dismissed from the case.

Jackson v. Laidlaw Transit, Inc., et al., 2003 PA Super 143 (4/10/2023).

Plaintiff Jackson was injured when he was rear ended by defendant Rosenbaum, after Jackson was forced to stop suddenly to avoid hitting a bus operated by defendant Laidlaw that had stopped suddenly in front of Jackson.  The accident occurred in Bucks County, where the defendant Rosenbaum lives.  Laidlaw does business in Philadelphia, where suit was filed.

Defendant Rosenbaum filed PO’s, challenging venue.  In as much as defendant Laidlaw regularly conducts business in Philadelphia, the trial court dismissed the PO’s, since venue was proper in Philadelphia based on Pa.R.C.P. 2179(a). 

After discovery, the defendant Laidlaw’s  Motion for Summary Judgment was granted by the lower court, holding that there was no cause of action against Laidlaw as a matter of law.  The defendant Rosenbaum then filed a motion, asking for removal of the case to Bucks County based on the lack of venue over the remaining defendants.  This motion was granted.

Jackson appealed, arguing that once venue was originally established as proper in Philadelphia, it was improper to transfer venue based on the subsequent dismissal of Laidlaw from the litigation.  The Superior Court affirmed the trial court, holding that once the corporate defendant was dismissed from the case, venue in the remaining claim was no longer proper in Philadelphia, citing Deutschbauer v. Barakat, 814 A.2d 246 (Pa.Super. 2002).

PROCEDURE - Federal Court Venue

Connors v. R. & S. Parts & Services, Inc., 2003 WL 1062916 (E.D. Pa. 3/5/2023).

Plaintiffs were Pennsylvania residents who were injured in a motor vehicle crash in New Jersey, caused by the negligence of a corporation who’s principal place of business is in New Jersey.  Defendant sought to transfer venue to the US District Court for the District of New Jersey, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1404 (a).

The Court transferred venue to New Jersey.  The Court first had to determine if the balancing of convenience and the interests of justice favored trial in the proposed transferee forum, taking into consideration various public and private interests.  The court noted that private interests include the plaintiff’s choice of venue, the defendant’s preference, where the claim arose, the convenience of parties and witnesses to the extent that they might be unavailable in one of the fora, and the extent to which records or other documentary evidence would be available.  Public interests include the administrative difficulty resulting from court congestion, local interest in deciding the controversy, relative importance of public policies, and familiarity of the trial judge with the applicable state law in diversity cases.

The Court noted that the moving party has the burden of establishing that a balancing of the proper interests weighs in favor of the transfer - “that all relevant things considered, the case would be better off transferred to another district.”   The Court transferred the matter to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

PROCEDURE - Statute of Limitations - Service on Defendant Post-Witherspoon

Plaintiffs need only to make a good faith effort to serve defendants, which must be determined by the court using its sound discretion on a case-by-case basis.  The “immediately and continually” standard for reinstating a writ of summons after a S/L has expired in order to achieve good service, although proposed by the lead opinion in Witherspoon, is not the law in Pennsylvania. 

Parr v. Roman, 2003 PA Super 146, 2003 WL 1870942, (4/14/2003) Klein, Bender, Cavanaugh, JJ.

Plaintiffs filed a Praecipe for Writ of Summons one day before the statute of limitations expired on a claim arising out of a rear-end motor vehicle accident.  The docket entries reflect several unsuccessful attempts to effectuate service on defendant.  The writ had lapsed twice and was reissued and was subsequently served on defendant more than five months after the matter was commenced.  Roman filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, alleging that the matter was time-barred under Witherspoon v. City of Philadelphia, 768 A.2d 1079 (Pa. 2001) (plurality).  Without considering the disputed testimony that the plaintiffs acted in good faith in their attempts to locate the defendant, the trial court granted judgment on the pleadings based on the lead opinion in Witherspoon, and based on the plaintiffs’ failure to “immediately and continually reissue” the writ until service was accomplished.

The Superior Court reversed and remanded for a hearing on whether the plaintiffs acted with due diligence in their attempts to serve the defendant.  The Court noted that it is true that the lead opinion in Witherspoon purported to change Pennsylvania law from merely a “good faith effort” to serve defendants to a new standard that would have required that “the process be immediately and continually reissued until service is made.”  However, the Court also noted that this language was adopted by only two Justices, who were no longer on the bench.  The concurring opinion, and the dissenting opinion (reflecting the opinions of five justices) rejected this new standard.  “Therefore, the law remains that the plaintiffs need only make a good faith effort to serve defendants, which must be determined by the court using its sound discretion on a case-by-case basis.

PROCEDURE - Statute of Limitations - Service on Defendant Post-Witherspoon

Plaintiffs need only to make a good faith effort to serve defendants, which must be determined by the court using its sound discretion on a case-by-case basis.  The “immediately and continually” standard for reinstating a writ of summons after a S/L has expired in order to achieve good service, although proposed by the lead opinion in Witherspoon, is not the law in Pennsylvania. 

Ramsay v. Pierre, 2003 PA Super 148, 2003 WL 1874698, (4/15/03), Bowes, Klein, McEwen, JJ.

Defendant collided with a parked car owned by plaintiff, causing severe damage to the car but no injury.  After a non-jury verdict for $3,595.68 in favor of plaintiff, defendant appealed, arguing, inter alia., that the trial court erred in denying his motion for summary judgment based on the statute of limitations.

The Superior Court affirmed the trial court verdict, noting that through Lamp v. Heyman, 469 Pa. 465, 366 A.2d 882 (1976) and its progeny, Pennsylvania has adopted a rule requiring a plaintiff to make a good faith attempt to effect service of process in a timely manner, where an action is commenced prior to the running of the statute of limitations but service does not occur until after the expiration of the statutory period.  The Superior Court noted that defendant erroneously relied on Witherspoon v. City of Philadelphia, since “as a plurality decision, Witherspoon lacks precedential value

In light of the specific facts present in the case at bar, the Court found that the nine-month delay in making service was not unreasonable. 

EVIDENCE - Admissibility of Lost Wage Claim Following Adverse Workers Comp Ruling

Auto accident plaintiff is barred from presenting lost wage claim, where a workers’ compensation judge has ruled that the injuries suffered did not cause a compensable disability from work.

Rutter v. Rivera, 2003 WL 22047996, PICS Case No. 03-1330 (3d. Circuit 2003)

Plaintiff Jennifer Rutter was working for Valens Information Systems, a job that required frequent trips to client locations for maintenance of computer systems.  While returning to her office from a job, Rutter was involved in a MVA and was injured. Rutter filed a claim for workers compensation benefits, as well as litigation against the tortfeasors who caused the accident.  The workers compensation judge denied Rutter’s claim for benefits.

In the third party litigation, defense counsel originally had failed to plead collateral estoppel from the not yet decided workers comp claim.  However, after the decision by the workers comp judge, defense counsel filed a motion to amend their answer, arguing that the denial of the workers comp claim should preclude the plaintiff from claiming damages for lost wages in the negligence action.  The trial judge denied the motion to amend and, at trial, the plaintiff testified that she had missed 26 weeks from work, and that she lost $1000 per week in wages.  The jury returned a verdict for $71,000.

The Third Circuit reversed, hoding that Rule 15(a) provides that leave to amend shall be freely given when justice so requires, embodying a liberal approach to amendments.  The Court indicated that the plaintiff could not have been unaware of, or unfairly surprised by, the judgment in her workers’ compensation claim.  The amendment would not have required plaintiff to conduct any further discovery or to put on evidence of any additional facts at trial.  The Third Circuit held that the decision by the workers compensation judge that Rutter was not disabled as a result of the accident effectively barred her from recovering any lost wages in her civil suit.  Pennsylvania courts have given preclusive effect to specific conclusions of law in the opinions of workers compensation judges and, here, the workers comp judge said he found no indication that Rutter suffered an injury that would be disabling.  Therefore, the issue decided by the workers compensation judge is identical to the wage loss claim asserted by plaintiff in the third party litigation, for purposes of collateral estoppel.


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