Under the Pennsylvania’s Comparative Negligence Act, a plaintiff’s contributory negligence can be considered when compared to a defendant’s negligent conduct— but not to reckless conduct. Recently, the Superior Court established an interesting work-around in the context of multi-plaintiff actions, where one plaintiff can be held liable to the defendant for contribution and indemnity for the harm that plaintiff’s actions contributed to the other plaintiffs’ injuries.
In Straw v. Fair, Plaintiff John Straw was driving with three family members on the highway when the car’s failed hood mechanism caused the hood to open and obstruct his view. Mr. Straw stopped the car in the travelling lane and turned on his hazard flashers. Kirk Fair was driving a truck for Golon Masonry behind the Straws. Mr. Fair was under the influence of drugs, did not notice the stopped car, and crashed into the Straws at approximately 60 miles per hour. The accident seriously injured Mr. Straw and two of the passengers; the Straws’ six year-old-son died. Mr. Fair was convicted of several crimes, including DUI and Recklessly Endangering Another Person (REAP).
Golon Masonry filed a cross-claim against Mr. Straw for indemnity and contribution. The basis of the claim was that Mr. Straw was responsible for the passenger’s injuries because he did not need to leave the car in the running lane. The Straws filed a motion for summary judgment of Golon Masonry’s cross-claim, and the trial court ruled that because Mr. Fair’s conduct was reckless—as evidenced by his guilty plea to REAP—Mr. Straw’s comparative negligence could not be considered because the Act only applies to a defendant’s negligent conduct. The case went to trial and the jury returned a verdict of $35 million.
The Superior Court reversed the trial court’s finding because it “mistakenly confused [Golon Masonry’s] cross-claim against Mr. Straw with [Golon Masonry’s] affirmative defense that Mr. Straw was comparatively negligent for his own injuries.” The Superior Court reasoned that the trial court was correct in interpreting the Act as not applying to reckless conduct. However, in asserting a cross-claim for indemnity or contribution, defendants were not alleging that Mr. Straw’s negligence should not reduce or diminish his recovery. Rather, the cross-claim alleges that Mr. Straw’s negligence renders him directly liable to the passengers or to defendants for contribution. Thus, Mr. Straw was essentially just another defendant as to this cross-claim. The Superior Court clearly held that Pennsylvania law permits contribution between reckless and negligent co-defendants—and in this context can be applied to a plaintiff.
As a result, the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s motion for summary judgment and vacated the $35 million verdict.
Thanks to Ellis Palividas for his contribution to this post and please write to Mike Bono for more information.