Pennsylvania Record

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Pa. Supreme Court considers itself a 'Super Legislature,' says civil justice group

Attorneys & Judges

By Nicholas Malfitano | Mar 2, 2020

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court

HARRISBURG – The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s recent decision that the Fair Share Act does not apply to asbestos lawsuits is another example of the court showing off its power over legislators who enacted tort reform measures, the head of a state civil justice group says.

A 6-1 majority of the state Supreme Court decided Feb. 19 in Roverano v. John Crane, Inc., an asbestos exposure lawsuit that has been closely watched by legal authorities in Pennsylvania for most of the last decade, that the Fair Share Act did not supersede state law practice of assigning liability to more than one defendant equally.

As a result of the decision, verdicts will be evenly divided among multiple defendants rather than split according to the percentage each defendant is found liable. In the arena of strict liability law, the consequences of that decision may ring loud and long.

Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform executive director Curt Schroder provided his perspective that the state Supreme Court assumed powers normally reserved for the state legislature, through its decision in Roverano.  

“The Supreme Court appears to view its role more as a ‘Super Legislature’ that disposes of law it doesn’t like as opposed to interpreting the statutes passed by the General Assembly. The Roverano holding performs great violence on the Fair Share Act,” Schroder said.

“The Fair Share Act is crystal-clear in that it requires apportionment of damages according to the liability of the parties in strict liability cases. It simply doesn’t matter that the legislature offered no instruction on how to do that, which the Supreme Court cites as indication that the legislature didn’t mean exactly what it said. The court arrived at this conclusion through legal gymnastics and torturous reasoning.”

Schroder referred to a recent state Supreme Court ruling in the Yanakos v. UPMC case as further evidence of his belief that the court overstepped its authority. In that decision, the court gave medical malpractice plaintiffs 12 years to file their lawsuits, eliminating a seven-year window created by lawmakers earlier this century.

“This is the second time in a month that the court has re-written acts of the General Assembly. In Yanakos, the court struck down the medical liability statute of repose in the MCARE Act by imposing standards a legislature likely cannot meet. Now the court has rendered meaningless the part of the Fair Share Act that plainly includes actions for strict liability. It appears that no existing civil justice reform enacted by the legislature is safe if it reaches the Supreme Court,” Schroder stated.

Stewart J. Greenleaf Sr., former Chairman of the State Senate Judiciary Committee, and state Sen. Jake Corman, the architects of the Fair Share Act that became law in 2011, did not return requests for comment from the Pennsylvania Record, both as to the decision itself or whether they intended the Fair Share Act to apply to asbestos lawsuits.

Background on Roverano v. Crane

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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Organizations in this Story

Pennsylvania Supreme CourtPennsylvania Coalition For Civil Justice Reform