Asleep at the Wheel: Expert Opinion Creates Question of Law as to Duty of Care?
In a recent (and hopefully non-precedential) decision, the Pennsylvania Superior Court effectively determined that the defendant’s duty of care is not necessarily a question of law, but rather – in a twist sure to shock Bar Examiners – can be defined by the jury. In Harvey v. Palumbo, the Superior Court considered whether the Clearfield County Court of Common Pleas had properly granted summary judgment in a fatal trucking accident. An automobile carrying the three plaintiffs illegally passed the defendants’ tractor trailer via a right-hand turn lane. The plaintiffs argued that the trial court failed to consider their expert’s testimony as to the standard of care owed by the tractor trailer operator. On the other hand, the defendants contended that the judge below was correct to define the operator’s duty by reference to well-established Pennsylvania law.
In a 2-1 decision, the Superior Court ultimately sided with the plaintiffs and explained that the expert’s report “create[d] issues of material fact for the jury to decide, including [the operator’s] standard of care under the unique circumstances presented . . .”
However, while the majority lamented this particular case as an example that “bad facts make bad law”, Judge Eugene B. Strassburger III’s dissenting opinion was not only quick to note that the Supreme Court had previously declined to hold truck drivers to a higher standard of care, but reminded us all that the existence of a duty is a question of law for the courts to decide without regard to issues of material fact. Even still, summary judgment was reversed and the case remanded to Clearfield County for a trial in which the jury might conflate the level of care owed by the defendants with the question of whether their conduct objectively fell below the same.
The decision in Harvey is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court for clarification of that Court’s own rulings on the level of care owed by professional truck drivers. Still the Superior Court’s refusal to make a fundamental legal determination in Harvey is indicative of an emerging trend amongst Pennsylvania jurists to submit the case to the jury. As a result, it is no surprise that a growing number of cases in Pennsylvania result in disinclined settlements, unpredictable verdicts and extensive appellate review. Thanks to Adam Gomez for his contribution to this post, and please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.