HARRISBURG – On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed a Commonwealth Court’s ruling that overturned an order granting Port Authority of Allegheny County a new trial after one of its bus drivers hit a pedestrian.
Joan P. Grove was struck by a bus operated by Betty Cunningham in June 2014. Cunningham moved the bus around the side of the car that was stopped and hit Grove, knocking her to the ground as the bus drove over her right leg. Grove had to get multiple surgeries and have her leg amputated from the knee down.
A jury initially granted Grove $250,000 in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in her personal injury action. The Commonwealth Court then vacated the damages and remanded for a new trial, stating that the trial court didn’t properly instruct the jury on negligence per se.
Now, the Supreme Court has determined that the Commonwealth Court abused its discretion when it said the lower court’s error of not properly instructing the jury of negligence per se wasn’t harmless.
“Because the jury found Grove negligent, any perceived error in failing to instruct on negligence per se was harmless error," wrote Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy. "Importantly, the Commonwealth Court did not make a finding of prejudice in its harmless error analysis; it merely opined the proposed instructions could have influenced the jury.”
The Supreme Court was unable to find a major error that would have weighed heavily enough in reversing the lower court’s decision to deny Port Authority’s post-trial motion. It noted that under the law, the appellate court doesn’t have the authority to green-light a new trial without determining huge error or prejudicial omission.
“At no point did the Commonwealth Court affirmatively conclude that the failure to give a negligence per se instruction would have impacted the outcome, but rather the court engaged in speculation that the omission of the instructions could have impacted the jury’s appointment decision,” Mundy wrote.
The justice noted that a negligence per se charge is related to duty and breach of said duty. The jury determined that Grove was negligent, that she had a duty and breached that duty.
Justices Max Baer, Debra Todd, Christine Donohue and Kevin M. Dougherty joined the opinion. Baer filed a concurring opinion that Donohue, Dougherty and Mundy joined. Donohue also filed a concurring opinion. Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor and Justice David Norman Wecht filed dissenting opinions.