Not Fair in Pennsylvania: Application of The Pennsylvania Fair Share Act to Strict Liability Cases Reviewed by State Supreme Court


In Pennsylvania, the proper method by which shares of liability are allocated to asbestos defendants (and strict liability defendants more generally) has been unclear for some time. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania heard argument on March 6, 2019 in a case that should clarify matters and provide some certainty regarding the Pennsylvania Fair Share Act.

Background

The Pennsylvania legislature passed the Fair Share Act in 2011, eliminating joint and several liability from most tort cases. See 42 Pa. C.S. §7102. Under the Fair Share Act, each defendant is only liable for its apportioned amount of lability:

Where recovery is allowed against more than one person, including actions for strict liability, and where liability is attributed to more than one defendant, each defendant shall be liable for that proportion of the total dollar amount awarded as damages in the ratio of the amount of that defendant’s liability to the amount of liability attributed to all defendants and other persons to whom liability is apportioned under subsection (a.2).

42 Pa. C.S. §7102(a.1). From a practical standpoint, this provision of the Fair Share Act makes “pro rata” or “apportioned” allocation the default mechanism for allocating liability amongst tortfeasors in Pennsylvania.

Subsection (a.2) provides that “a defendant’s liability shall be several and not joint, and the court shall enter a separate and several judgment in favor of the plaintiff and against each defendant for the apportioned amount of that defendant’s liability.” 42 Pa. C.S. §7102(a.2). This provision eliminates joint and several liability and makes all tortfeasors severally liable to the injured party except in a few defined circumstances. For instance, where a defendant is found more than 60% liable to plaintiff, that defendant is jointly and severally liable. See 42 Pa. C.S. §7102(a.1)(3).

Although the Fair Share Act specifically applies to “actions for strict liability,” trial courts have inconsistently applied pro rata allocation in asbestos strict liability litigation. Many courts have relied upon a prior version of the Fair Share Act which apportioned fault amongst strictly liable defendants on a per capita basis whereby each defendant is equally responsible for a portion of the verdict (e.g. five defendants would each be 20% liable).

Roverano

The Superior Court held in December 2017 that the Fair Share Act applies to both negligence and strict liability actions. See Roverano v. John Crane, Inc., 177 A.3d 892 (Pa. Super. 2017). In Roverano, a Philadelphia jury awarded $6.4 million to a former utility worker and his wife in an asbestos (lung cancer) lawsuit. The trial court ruled that the Fair Share Act did not apply and apportioned the judgment equally among the eight defendants determined to be tortfeasors. The two defendants left at trial appealed, arguing (1) that the Fair Share Act applies to strict liability matters and (2) that the jury may consider evidence of settlements with bankrupt entities in connection with apportionment of liability.

The Superior Court agreed, finding that “liability in strict liability cases must be allocated in the same way as in other tort cases, and not on a per capita basis” and that “settlements with bankrupt entities [may be] included in the calculation of allocated liability” under the Fair Share Act provided that defendants at trial “submit evidence to establish that the non-parties were joint tortfeasors.” Roverano, 177 A.3d at 909.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted a petition for appeal in Roverano to settle these issues of “first impression” to determine the proper method of allocation in strict liability cases. The Roverano case was argued before the Supreme Court on March 6, 2018.

The justices were generally skeptical of proportional allocation of fault in asbestos litigation, finding that such an approach would lend itself to “junk science” over how fault should be apportioned between defendants. Further, the justices questioned how it would be possible for a jury to determine proportional fault in a “non-arbitrary way” in asbestos cases. Counsel for the defense argued that the Fair Share Act is specifically focused on apportionment of damages, not liability, such that the cause of action is not altered. Plaintiffs’ counsel asserted that it would be impossible for the jury to apportion fault in this manner where the medical community has not been able to do so in the asbestos context. Plaintiffs also argued that bankrupt entities should not be allowed on the verdict sheet because it would violate federal law that bars bankrupt entities from defending lawsuits.

Roverano presents an opportunity for the Supreme Court to set the record straight once and for all as to whether the Fair Share Act applies to strict liability litigation. It appears based on oral argument, however, that the Supreme Court is focused more narrowly on whether the Fair Share Act should apply in asbestos cases, entertaining argument as to whether it is medically and scientifically possible to do so at all. Some commentators were anticipating that the Supreme Court might – in the interest of predictability in products litigation – take a broader approach and establish a framework as to how liability should be apportioned generally in strict liability cases. A decision is expected in a few months.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court to Address Whether Jury or Court Determines “Unreasonably Dangerous”

3-2The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently allowed an appeal in two consolidated asbestos personal injury lawsuits on the limited issue of whether “a defendant in a strict-liability claim based on a failure-to-warn theory has the right to have a jury determine whether its product was ‘unreasonably dangerous.’” Amato v. Bell & Gossett, 448 EAL 2015 (Feb. 1, 2016); Vinciguerra v. Bayer Cropscience, Inc., 447 EAL 2015 (Pa. Feb. 1, 2016).

This case is particularly significant because it will be the first occasion that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court builds on its landmark decision in Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., 104 A.3d 328 (Pa. 2014).

Prior to Tincher, there was a firm separation between strict liability and negligence claims, and negligence concepts such as the inherent risks of a product versus its utility were not presented to a jury. Rather, the trial court would examine those considerations and determine whether a product was “unreasonably dangerous” as a matter of law. The jury was simply asked to decide whether the product was “defective,” i.e. “whether the product lacks any element necessary to make it safe for its intended use.” Tincher held that “whether a product is defective depends upon whether that product is ‘unreasonably dangerous’” and that determination is a question of fact for the jury.

The Amato/Vinciguerra case was tried before the Tincher decision came down. However, Crane had anticipated a change in the law and submitted a proposed failure-to-warn jury instruction incorporating considerations of foreseeability and reasonableness. The trial court declined to issue the proposed jury instruction, and the jury returned multimillion-dollar verdicts in favor of the plaintiffs.

Amato/Vinciguerra presents an opportunity for the court to address several issues raised by Tincher. First, Tincher, which involved a design defect claim, did not address how its decision applies to other strict products liability claims, i.e. manufacturing defect or failure-to-warn claims. The Amato/Vinciguerra case is a failure-to-warn case and the court should clarify whether one of its holdings – that a jury should determine whether a product is “unreasonably dangerous” – applies to failure-to-warn cases.

Second, Tincher held that design defect claims may proceed under either the risk-utility test or the consumer expectations test, so Amato/Vinciguerra presents a chance for the court to address whether these two tests will apply to failure-to-warn cases.

Third, the court might consider whether under Tincher, juries are permitted to consider “state-of-the-art” evidence in determining the reasonableness of a manufacturer’s failure to warn. Such “state-of-the-art evidence,” or evidence of the relevant industry standards and the science known during the time period in question, is significant in asbestos cases where manufacturers are often found liable for failing to warn about the dangers of asbestos during a time period when the dangers of asbestos were not known. This type of evidence would certainly be probative of the reasonableness of a manufacturer’s failure to warn and relevant to the jury’s determination of whether the lack of warning made the product “unreasonably dangerous.”