A Pennsylvania man’s defamation claim against medical providers tasked with physically evaluating him for a truck-driving job appears to have sunken his claim for tortious interference against the medical defendants.
Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge Terrence R. Nealon said that because plaintiff David Pittsman’s claim that Dr. David Perrone defamed him and Perrone’s alleged defamatory statement were the sole grounds for his tortious interference claim that Perrone prevented him from securing a job as a truck driver, the one-year statute of limitations for defamation claims governed the entire lawsuit.
Pittsman had filed his lawsuit against Perrone and the Redi-Care Medical Center of Taylor Inc. just shy of the two-year statute of limitations for tortious interference but well after the time bar for defamation.
In an 18-page opinion in Pittsman v. Perrone, Nealon agreed with the defendants that both causes of action were predicated on the same operative facts. In other words, the gist of his tortious interference claim was the alleged defamatory statement by Perrone — that Pittsman was not physically qualified to operate a commercial truck for Bolus Freight Systems Inc. without a "Skill Performance Evaluation" certificate.
Several courts, both Pennsylvania state and federal, have addressed interrelated defamation and tortious inference claims in the context of statutes of limitations, and have landed on both sides of the fence regarding whether the one-year statute of limitations for defamation in Pennsylvania law subsumed the other claim.
Borrowing from the state Superior Court’s 1991 holding in Evans v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Nealon said Pittsman’s tortious interference with business relations claim sub judice "’springs from the act’" of defamation and, therefore, the one-year statute governs both causes of action.
According to the opinion, Pittsman applied for a job as an "over the road" truck driver with Bolus Freight on February 24, 2009. On the same day, he reported to Perrone for a physical examination at the request of a Bolus representative.
Pittsman alleged that Perrone, before making a determination as to Pittsman’s physical capabilities for the job, called the Bolus representative and had a conversation for which Pittsman was not present.
Following the alleged conversation, according to Nealon, Pittsman asserted that Perrone refused to certify him as capable of driving a commercial vehicle without the SPE certificate, indicating that Pittsman did not qualify under standards set forth in federal law for driving commercial motor vehicles.
The plaintiff alleged another medical group had previously certified him for employment as a truck driver without an SPE certificate and that, as a result of Perrone’s refusal to greenlight him, he was required to take another job 90 miles from his home.
He further alleged that shortly after Perrone refused to certify him, another physician cleared him to drive under the federal requirements without the SPE certificate for the inconveniently located job.
Pittsman advanced three causes of action — defamation, tortious interference with business relations and corporate liability. A judge had previously dismissed the corporate liability claim before Nealon’s April 11 opinion and order.
Pittsman’s complaint appeared to allege slander (the alleged telephone conversation) and libel (Perrone’s report to Bolus), Nealon said. But Nealon quickly disposed of the defamation claim in ruling the claim was clearly time-barred based on the one-year statute of limitations.
The bulk of Nealon’s opinion was devoted to determining whether the facts in the instant case tied the tortious interference claim to the defamation claim.
The elements of a tortious interference claim with a prospective contractual relationship, which Nealon found to apply to Pittsman, (as opposed to an existing contract) are as follows: the existence of a prospective contractual relationship, the intent by a defendant to cause harm by preventing the potential relationship, the absence of a privilege or justification insulating the defendant, and actual damages.
The defendants, represented by Neil E. Wenner of The Perry Law Firm in Bethlehem, Pa., argued that Evans prevented Pittsman from avoiding defamation’s one-year statute by simply labeling it a tortious interference claim.
In Evans, according to Nealon, the plaintiff sued a newspaper for defamation after the paper published an article about his youth training program that he alleged was defamatory.
The Superior Court, addressing the issue of first impression, said where the "underlying wrong" was a libelous report and the claim of injury "springs from the act of publication," a plaintiff may not "circumvent the statute of limitations by merely terming the claim tortious interference when, in essence, it is one of defamation."
In a federal case, more factually similar to Pittsman, Hurst v. Beck, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held the one-year statute applied where the plaintiff was denied employment and alleged defamatory communications were the cause.
Last year, in contrast, the Superior Court in Maverick Steel v. Dick applied the two-year statute to a tortious interference claim that was based on what Nealon called "an independent, non-defamatory course of conduct."
However, such was not the case in Pittsman.
"Pittsman has not alleged any wrongful conduct by Dr. Perrone and Redi-Care other than their determination that Pittsman was not physically qualified to operate a commercial vehicle without the SPE certificate, and their supposed communication of that conclusion to Mr. Burris (the Bolus representative) and Bolus Freight," Nealon said. "These two matters serve as the sole grounds for Pittsman’s defamation claims, as well as his tortious interference claim."
Wenner, the defendants’ attorney, said he was pleased with the result, calling Nealon’s opinion "spot on" and very thorough.
Asked whether a tortious interference claim would have survived had a defamation claim not been asserted, Wenner could not say for certain. But the attorney was inclined to say the claim would fail along similar lines of reasoning that Nealon used.
Scranton solo practitioner Kevin J. Fitzgerald represented Pittsman and did not return a call requesting comment.
(Copies of the 18-page opinion in Pittsman v. Perrone, PICS No. 13-0865, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •