Federal District Court Comments on Fair Share Act’s Applicability in Cases Involving a “Faultless” Plaintiff in Light of Spencer v. Johnson
While clarification on the Fair Share Act in light of the Superior Court case of Spencer v. Johnson has yet to be directly addressed by the appellate courts, other courts have weighed in on the argument that traditional joint and several liability may apply in cases involving “faultless” plaintiffs. The most recent example comes from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in Anderson v. Motorists Mut. Ins. Co., No. 2:21-CV-00493-CCW (W.D. Pa. June 22, 2022 Wiegand, J.). As part of its holding, the court discussed whether the Fair Share Act would apply given that the decedent in Anderson was not comparatively negligent. Of note, the portion of the Anderson opinion which discussed the Fair Share Act appears to be dicta, similar to the Spencer opinion.
Anderson v. Motorists arose out of a fatal motor vehicle accident. Following the accident, the plaintiffs brought suit against the third-party tortfeasors and subsequently filed a claim for UIM benefits with Motorists Mutual. Motorists Mutual denied the claim, arguing the value did not exceed the $5.1 million credit it would receive based on the liability limits of the third-party tortfeasors.
The decedent was a passenger in a vehicle at the time of the accident. The vehicle was insured with liability limits of $100,000. The other vehicle involved was owned by a trucking company, with liability limits of $1 million and an umbrella policy of $4 million. The plaintiffs had settled the third-party claim with the driver for the policy limits of $100,000. The plaintiffs also settled with the trucking company for $550,000. Motorists Mutual, thus, argued it was entitled to a credit of $5.1 million, a total of the available liability limits of the third-party tortfeasors. However, the plaintiffs argued that Motorists Mutual was only entitled to a $650,000 credit, the sum of the amounts actually paid by the third-party tortfeasors, unless Motorists Mutual could prove that the trucking company’s percentage of fault equaled or exceeded 60%. The plaintiffs claimed Motorists Mutual was required to establish proof that the trucking company was at least 60% at fault; otherwise, they were not entitled to the $5.1 million credit because the plaintiffs would not have been able to recover the full amount of damages from the trucking company under the Pennsylvania Fair Share Act.
The court, citing Boyle v. Erie, held that the UIM carrier was entitled to the full amount of any available liability limits from all third-party defendants. The plaintiffs countered that Boyle was no longer applicable due to the passage of the Fair Share Act. The Anderson Court noted it did not need to decide whether the Pennsylvania Fair Share Act changed the holding in Boyle because, assuming arguendo the Fair Share Act did alter the Boyle decision, the plaintiffs’ argument would still fail because “it is not clear that the Pennsylvania Fair Share Act applies where the plaintiff’s negligence is not in question, as is the case here.” The opinion discussed the Spencer decision, and stated the Spencer Court found that in order for the “Fair Share Act to apply, the plaintiff’s negligence must be an issue in the case.” The Anderson Court went on to predict that “because the decedent’s negligence is not at issue in this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would find that the Fair Share Act does not apply in cases such as this one, where the plaintiff’s negligence is not an issue, and, as a result, that the traditional principles of joint and several liability would control." The court ultimately concluded that the UIM carrier was, in fact, entitled to a credit for the full amount of the liability limits available from the third-party defendants.
The opinion in Anderson will be another case plaintiffs’ attorneys may cite in order to argue for the application of traditional joint and several liability in cases involving “faultless” plaintiffs. It will be argued that, in such instances, the Fair Share Act does not apply.
As noted above, the Fair Share Act discussion in Anderson was dicta as the court ultimately held that Boyle was the controlling precedent upon which the court based its decision. The fact that the Spencer and Anderson Courts’ discussions of the Fair Share Act appear to be dicta can be raised as a counter to arguments from plaintiffs’ attorneys attempting to argue for traditional joint and several liability. Defense counsel can further contend that the legislative history of the Fair Share Act supports an argument that no exception was intended for situations where a plaintiff is not apportioned any fault.
A more detailed discussion of the legislative history can be found in an article previously published by the Pennsylvania Defense Institute.
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