Court rules not being able to play catch with son in his final months isn't viable claim for dad hurt in wreck

By Scott Holland | Mar 12, 2019

HARRISBURG — A Pennsylvania appeals court has upheld a personal injury award for a man injured in a car crash but turned down his request for extra damages. He claimed he lost the enjoyment of life by not being able to play baseball with his son, who died almost two years after the crash. 

A Community Transit of Delaware County bus rear-ended the car of John Dukes Jr. on Sept. 28, 2014, in Springfield, causing neck, back, arm and leg pain. The injuries left him unable to play baseball with his 23-year-old son, identified as severely autistic. The son died unexpectedly in July 2016, in a manner unconnected to the bus crash.

Dukes filed a negligence lawsuit against the bus company and driver on Sept. 25, 2016, and on Dec. 8, 2017, a Philadelphia County civil jury awarded $50,000 in damages for emotional distress and loss of life’s pleasures. Both parties agreed the bus driver was negligent and caused the accident and that the bus company bore responsibility.

Five days after the jury verdict, Dukes filed a post-trial motion claiming the $50,000 was an unreasonably low sum because he hadn’t been allowed to testify with specificity about his son’s autism and how the crash affected their relationship.

Dukes and his son played catch together and participated in a baseball league.

On March 28, 2018, trial court Judge Malene Lachman denied that motion, entering judgment against the bus company along with delay damages of $423. Dukes appealed that decision to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, which issued a non-precedential opinion March 5. Judge Anne Lazarus wrote the opinion. Judges Deborah Kunselman and James Colins concurred.

According to the opinion, Lachman let Dukes testify his son had “limitations,” but wouldn’t allow the word “autism” since that reference was “likely to raise issues of sympathy that are not relevant to the case.” Although Dukes was allowed to give testimony about playing baseball with and shaving his son, he couldn’t mention his death about 22 months after the crash.

“During the time he was unable to play baseball or otherwise spend sufficient time with his son, Dukes was unaware that his son would die in the near future,” Lazarus wrote. “The trial court aptly discerned that the testimony Dukes sought to admit did not constitute evidence of damages resulting from the accident.”

Rather, the panel explained, Dukes was attempting to recover damages for his regret; in hindsight, he didn’t share the same relationship with his son during the last years of his son’s life, the court said.

The panel affirmed the Lachman’s finding that “Those regrets and memories are not compensable in this case because they were caused by a new and distinct trauma — his son’s unexpected death — for which the defendants bear no responsibility.”

Lazarus also noted the panel agreed with Lachman’s decsions about what testimony was proper to allow at trial, writing, “the evidence Dukes sought to admit was likely to cause unfair prejudice to the defendants by eliciting sympathy for Dukes and was, as such, inadmissible.”

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