Not Fair in Pennsylvania (Update) – The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules That Fair Share Act Does Not Allow Fault-Based Apportionment in Strict Liability Cases

In a decision that will reshape Pennsylvania products liability cases, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that the Fair Share Act does not require pro rata percentage apportionment of damages among codefendants in proportion to fault. Instead, in asbestos and perhaps other strict liability cases, damages are to be split per capita, equally among defendants and a limited set of other responsible parties.

The Fair Share Act

The proper method by which shares of liability are allocated to asbestos defendants (and strict liability defendants more generally) was unclear for some time in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Fair Share Act, passed in 2011, apparently clarified the issue by eliminating joint and several liability apportionment in most tort cases.

[E]ach 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.

42 Pa. C.S. §7102(a.1). This provision appears to make “pro rata” or “apportioned” allocation of fault the default mechanism for allocating liability in Pennsylvania.

The statute further 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.” This provision makes all tortfeasors severally liable to the injured party except in a few defined circumstances, such as where a defendant is found more than 60% liable.

The Fair Share Act specifically applies to “actions for strict liability,” but trial courts have inconsistently applied pro rata allocation in asbestos strict liability cases, often relying upon the language from a prior version of the Fair Share Act which apportioned fault amongst strictly liable defendants on a per capita basis, such that each defendant is equally responsible for a portion of the verdict (e.g. five defendants would each be 20% liable) without regard to degrees of fault.

Roverano Lower Court Decisions

A Philadelphia jury awarded $6.4 million to a former utility worker and his wife following an asbestos (lung cancer) trial. The trial court ruled that the Fair Share Act did not apply and apportioned the judgment equally (per capita) among the eight tortfeasors. The two remaining defendants at trial appealed, arguing that pro rata allocation was required under the Fair Share Act. The Superior Court, Pennsylvania’s intermediate appellate court, sided with the defendants and reversed.

Roverano Supreme Court Decision

On February 19, 2020, a majority of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that the Fair Share Act requires trial courts to apportion liability equally (per capita) among strictly liable joint tortfeasors in asbestos litigation. [The majority opinion can be found here.] The court also ruled that the Fair Share Act allows defendants to include bankrupt entities on the verdict sheet and apportion liability against them, subject to (1) appropriate proof against the bankrupt entity and (2) provided that the bankrupt entity was joined as a defendant. Per capita allocation against a bankrupt entity is also permitted if that entity entered into a release with the plaintiff. Under the Supreme Court’s logic, the same rule should apply to settling codefendants, provided non-settling parties make the appropriate proofs against each settling entity.

Justice Wecht’s concurring opinion [found here] explained that the Fair Share Act was never intended to repeal a common law strict liability rule that compelled trial courts to apportion strict liability verdicts on a per capita basis. The use of the term “strict liability” was only “intended to eliminate joint and several liability for strict liability cases as well as for negligence actions.” Justice Wecht reasoned that “in providing that strict liability would apply to defendants severally rather than jointly, the General Assembly neither said nor clearly implied that it intended to displace per capita apportionment in strict liability cases.” Like the majority, Justice Wecht believes that it is too scientifically difficult to apportion fault in asbestos cases on a pro rata basis – that juries and trial courts cannot fairly apportion relative fault in asbestos and other toxic tort cases.

Impact on Products Liability Litigation in Pennsylvania

The Supreme Court did not explicitly state whether its holding is limited to asbestos and toxic tort cases, where scientific and exposure issues arguably make it difficult to fairly assign fault-based liability (though juries seem perfectly capable of the task in most other jurisdictions), or whether per capita allocation applies across the board to all strict liability defendants in Pennsylvania.

Three major effects of Roverano are likely: (1) to increase settlement pressure on nominal defendants facing per capita liability allocation at trial; (2) to incentivize defendants to join additional parties to spread liability amongst as many defendants as possible; (3) to change the way cases are tried, for example “pointing the finger” at more culpable parties.

Many commentators believe that the Supreme Court intended Roverano as a special rule in cases where damages and liability cannot reasonably be divided between multiple defendants. If true, the Fair Share Act would still apply to other types of strict liability cases, such as those involving industrial equipment, hard consumer goods, etc. On the other hand, if Roverano has broad applicability to all forms of strict liability cases, it will lead to a drastic change in the way that product defendants negotiate settlements. This interpretation of Roverano could lead to an explosion of third-party litigation, especially in complex products cases implicating numerous product distributors, component part manufacturers, etc.