HARRISBURG – The Superior Court of Pennsylvania has overturned a $597,000 judgment against American Premier Underwriters Inc., Consolidated Rail Corp., CSX Transportation, et al. and returned the case back to the lower court for further proceedings because of the actions of the appellee's counsel.
The court stated that the trial court erred when it failed to call a mistrial in the wake of irrelevant and prejudicial comments regarding the death of two CSX workers in an unrelated case.
The court also ordered the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing regarding any additional claims prior to retail.
The judges hearing the case included Lillian Harris Ransom, Paula Francisco Ott and James J. Fitzgerald III, who wrote the opinion, which was filed on Nov. 16.
The Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Civil Division had awarded appellee Michael Buttaccio $597,000 in a personal injury case under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act.
The opinion states that on appeal, the railway companies claimed that the trial court overstepped its bounds when it rejected their motion to strike the testimony of Buttaccio’s liability expert, claiming that his methodology wasn’t generally accepted in the field of ergonomics.
The railway companies also requested a new trial, noted that attorneys for Buttaccio repeatedly ignored a court order excluding evidence regarding staffing the railroads provided and making prejudicial comments about two CSX employees who were killed in an unrelated accident, the opinion states.
The railway companies also contended the trial court erred when it allowed testimony about the number of claims the companies had received regarding several disorders, including carpal tunnel, that employees allegedly complained about.
The opinion states Buttaccio started working as a carman for Penn Central in 1973. His work required a lot of squatting, kneeling and climbing around the cars. He claimed the nature of his work led to "career-ending shoulder, knee and carpal tunnel injuries," the opinion states.
The court ruled that the trial court was within its bounds when it permitted testimony from the ergonomics expert.
In seeking a new trial as a result of prejudicial conduct of Buttaccio’s counsel, in the Nov. 16 opinion. Fitzgerald noted that the court holds “that counsel’s repeated violations of the trial court’s order granting appellants’ motion in limine, as well as counsel’s inflammatory remark concerning the death of two CSX carmen in an unrelated case, warrant a new trial.”
The attorneys also disregarded the court order regarding the subject of staffing and repeatedly brought up the topic of manpower.
Citing Parr v. Ford Motor Co., Fitzgerald wrote that “the purpose of pretrial motions in limine is to “give the trial judge the opportunity to weigh potentially prejudicial and harmful evidence before the trial occurs, thus preventing the evidence from ever reaching the jury.”
Moreover, Fitzgerald wrote that when counsel flagrantly disregards a pretrial order, the only recourse is a new trial, which ensures respect for the rulings of the trial court and guarantees justice is fair and orderly.
Buttaccio did not contest the notion that his attorneys violated a court order with their reference to manpower. However, he claims the action wasn’t prejudicial.
Fitzgerald noted that the court disagreed.
“In the first place, appellee did not proffer any expert testimony that the railroads provided insufficient manpower, so appellee had no foundation to claim insufficient manpower,” he wrote. “By repeatedly injecting the manpower issue into the case, counsel drew attention to a theory that the jury never should have heard and invited the jury to decide the case on an improper basis. Although the trial court issued several curative instructions to disregard counsel’s improper remarks, the sheer number of counsel’s improper references prejudiced appellants, they were 'too numerous to be harmless.'”
Further, Fitzgerald noted the court found that the law states that attorneys are prevented from making remarks that can reasonably to have an impact on the award of damages.