Big asbestos case on this week's schedule for state Supreme Court; Will decide if Fair Share Act applies

By Nicholas Malfitano | Mar 5, 2019

PHILADELPHIA – Supreme Court of Pennsylvania arguments arrive in Philadelphia this week, including a hearing of a key case whose connection to the Fair Share Act and its applicability may have far-reaching implications in strict liability cases statewide for many years to come.

In addition to other matters on the docket at Philadelphia City Hall on Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments as to Roverano v. John Crane, Inc., an asbestos exposure lawsuit that has been long-scrutinized by legal observers in Pennsylvania for most of the last decade.

The Fair Share Act, signed into Pennsylvania law by then-Governor Tom Corbett in June 2011, amended the Commonwealth’s Comparative Negligence Statute and stipulated that if an individual defendant was found less than 60 percent liable in a given case, then dollar-amount damages for said defendant would be set at a level proportional to their percentage of liability in that case.

The Fair Share Act served to substantially curtail, if not remove, the concept of joint and several liability from such cases tried in the state. Formerly, defendants found responsible for a middling amount of the verdict could be required to pay the entire thing if co-defendants could not pay their part.

For several years, though, appellate court guidance on the applicability of the law to asbestos litigation was absent.

Enter Roverano v. Crane, Inc.

Plaintiff William Roverano worked for the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) from 1971 to 2001 and claimed his exposure to more than 15 types of asbestos products from several different manufacturers during the time period of 1971-1981 led to his development and diagnosis of lung cancer in 2013.

In contrast, the defendants argued Roverano’s history of smoking led to his lung cancer, rather than any exposure to asbestos products.

The trial court, the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, denied the defendants’ motion to apply the Fair Share Act to the case, explaining the legislation could not apply since “asbestos exposure is not quantifiable.”

A jury later found in favor of Roverano and his wife, awarding them in excess of $6.4 million, with the cost evenly split among eight defendants named in the lawsuit — all of which were solvent at the time.

On appeal, the defendants raised the issue of the Fair Share Act not expressly prohibiting its own application to asbestos cases, an argument which found favor in a December 2017 decision from the Superior Court of Pennsylvania and was cited as grounds for a new trial on remand.

“We hold that the trial court failed to apply the Fair Share Act in the manner intended by the Legislature and that we therefore need to remand this case for a new trial on the question of apportionment of liability,” the Superior Court’s decision read.

The Roveranos appealed the Superior Court’s December 2017 decision to the state Supreme Court, claiming the impossibility of accurately determining liability percentage from each defendant’s products, and that the appellate court erred in its particular interpretation of the Fair Share Act and its inclusion of bankrupt companies.

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nick.malfitano@therecordinc.com

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