Before a class action lawsuit can be pursued in Pennsylvania, plaintiffs must obtain an order from the court certifying the suit as a class action lawsuit. In assessing whether to certify, the court must determine whether a class action lawsuit is a fair and efficient method for dealing with the controversy. A recent decision from the Superior Court of Pennsylvania demonstrates that this determination can hinge on the difference between common questions of fact and law and those questions specific to each individual plaintiff.
Connie Kern was rushed to the Lehigh Valley Hospital ER after suffering injuries at an amusement part. Pursuant to the hospital’s policy, Kern signed an authorization for treatment upon arriving at the hospital. However, according to Kern, based on the payment guarantee paragraph of the authorization for treatment document, Kern was not informed of the price he would pay for services versus the price charged to patients with private or government insurance. Kern alleged that the hospital concealed that uninsured patients, like himself, would be billed according to a “Chargemaster” list, which cannot be obtained by patients.
After being released from the hospital, Kern received a $14,626.53 bill from Lehigh Valley Hospital. Kern neglected to pay his bill. Instead, Kern filed an original complaint against the hospital alleging, inter alia, violations of the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL). Kern then moved for class action certification for other similarly situated patients. After hearing extensive arguments from Kern and the Lehigh Valley Hospital, the trial court denied the motion for class certification. The court held that Kern failed to establish that his claims presented questions of law or fact common to the class. Instead, the court determined that the prevailing issue in the case would be each class member’s individual justifiable reliance on the hospital’s representations.
On appeal, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court – Kern failed to demonstrate that “he and all prospective class members justifiably relied on [the hospitals]’s alleged violations of the UTPCPL and, as a result of those alleged violations, suffered an ascertainable loss.” As such, Kern’s individual reliance was the major issue in the case, and denial of class certification was proper.
Moving forward, plaintiffs and potential members of class actions suits need to carefully consider all of the elements they need to successfully prove in order to assert their cause of action. If the elements of their claim require proof individualized to each potential plaintiff, a class action suit will probably be out of reach. Thanks to Erica Woebse for her contribution to this post. Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.