In the two decades since The Legal Intelligencer marked its 150th anniversary, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has navigated the rapids of controversy — among them the criminal convictions of two justices and a botched pay raise that exacted a fearsome political toll. It has also enjoyed breakthrough triumphs, like the taming of case backlog in Philadelphia, the imposition of new controls on medical malpractice suits — controls that may have staved off efforts to impose a damages cap — as well as opening a new administrative home for the state court system.
Those triumphs and controversies made the biggest headlines, but I am drawn to the late Chief Justice Ralph Cappy’s view: The heart of the justices’ work is to function as a "teaching court," directing bench and bar in the development of the common law, statutory interpretation and the state constitution.
What follows is one observer’s view of the cases that significantly changed the practice of law in Pennsylvania. A list this short can’t be exhaustive. And it might not even be a precise estimate of the most important decisions, politically or constitutionally.
As a matter of fact, in making this list I’ve put off to one side decisions affecting politics and the separation of powers, among them the Allegheny County decision that restated and cemented the concept of a statewide unified judicial system, the case that preserved the pay raise for judges and the row over voter identification in the 2012 election.
The decisions I’ve chosen changed not only the practice of law, but millions of everyday lives, in areas such as privacy from police intrusion, access to education and the regulation of a new industry in the state: gaming. Three of them were delivered within one week in March 2012 — each written by Justice Thomas G. Saylor. That’s just a coincidence, but it reflects Saylor’s long journey, amply documented in the pages of The Legal, from "loneliest justice" and most frequent dissenter to one of the court’s intellectual leaders. All three addressed longstanding ambiguity in meat-and-potatoes areas of litigation — products liability, asbestos and workers’ compensation.
So here they are: 13 game-changing decisions of the last 20 years. I apologize for perhaps oversimplifying the cases; think of this as a Cook’s tour of a generation of Pennsylvania law.
Curtis v. Kline (1995)
In 1992, the state Supreme Court in Blue v. Blue reversed the Superior Court and reaffirmed the traditional notion that support obligations end with the child’s 18th birthday. Blue, which dealt with a child whose estranged father did not want to pay college expenses, specifically held there was no obligation to provide for a child’s higher education, was panned by commentators and was explicitly rejected by the General Assembly, which passed Act 62 to impose a duty to provide that support.
Curtis v. Kline was the high court’s response. In Curtis, the justices blowtorched Act 62, striking it down as unconstitutional and effectively reimposing the rule in Blue. The reasoning was that Act 62 created an obligation to support children in families sundered by divorce, while not creating an obligation for supporting the higher education needs of children of intact families.
Commonwealth v. Matos (1996)
In some ways, this was Cappy’s signature opinion. In it, the majority held that Pennsylvania’s constitution offers broader protection against unreasonable search and seizure than does the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Matos consolidated three search-and-seizure cases where defendants discarded contraband while being chased by police. The central issue was whether police pursuit itself was tantamount to a seizure under Article I, Section 8, of the state constitution. The court ruled that it was, even though in California v. Hodari, the U.S. Supreme Court held otherwise under the Fourth Amendment. In a tour de force, Cappy emphasized that while federal constitutional jurisprudence had been focused on deterring police misconduct and error, Pennsylvania’s guarantees, which actually predate the Fourth Amendment, were focused on securing the right to privacy.
Rue v. K-Mart (1998)
The factual finding of an unemployment compensation referee did not preclude relitigation of the issue in a higher-stakes defamation lawsuit, the justices ruled. In Rue, a worker had been fired, ostensibly for stealing a bag of potato chips. The referee granted unemployment compensation benefits, finding there was no evidence of willful misconduct and specifically that she had not stolen the snack. K-Mart Corp. did not appeal the referee’s decision. The ex-employee turned around and sued the employer, K-Mart, for defamation in asserting she had been a potato-chip thief. She argued that the referee’s finding should have a preclusive effect. The justices, led by Justice Sandra Schultz Newman, said the stakes of the defamation case, where a jury had handed down a $1.49 million award, were so much higher than those of the unemployment compensation hearing, and the setting and rules of evidence so much more formal, that it made no sense for a trial court to be bound by the referee’s finding of fact.
Washington v. Baxter (1998)
This is one of the seminal cases interpreting the General Assembly’s thorough reworking of the automobile insurance system, the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law. Under the MVFRL, those who choose less expensive "limited tort" coverage may only ask to recover non-economic damages such as pain and suffering if they can prove "serious injuries." The definition of the statutory term was left to the courts. In Washington, the plaintiff suffered injuries to his right foot as the result of an auto accident. He was treated at a hospital emergency room and released hours later. One year later, he said he still suffered foot pain. But the only life function changes he could show the court were the need to switch from a push to a riding lawn mower, and a need for padding in his shoes.
The high court, in a decision by Cappy, made two key holdings. First, it would normally be part of the jury’s job to determine what a "serious injury" is under the MVFRL. Second, there was not enough evidence in Washington to say a serious injury had been sustained; in fact, the court called the lasting effects of the injury "de minimis." Most importantly, the high court outlined for the first time detailed criteria for defining "serious injury" under the MVFRL, probing the extent of impairment of body function.
Birth Center v. St. Paul Companies (2001)
The justices extended the responsibilities of insurers to not only comply with the bad-faith statute, 42 Pa. C.S. Section 8371, but imposed on them an affirmative duty to live up to an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The litigation came in the wake of a birth that resulted in severe physical injuries and brain damage. The parents, at trial, had secured an award of $4.3 million against the Birth Center, a Main Line natal facility. The Birth Center was insured by St. Paul Companies, with a policy limit of $1 million. The court recognized a common-law contractual cause of action for breach of the implied covenant, above and beyond the statutory obligation not to deny or delay provision of coverage in bad faith.
In re Adoption of R.B.F. and R.C.F. (2002)
The justices, reversing the Superior Court, established the principle of second-parent adoption without regard to the gender of the legal parent, or the party’s marital status. Two cases — one involving a gay couple from Erie County and the other a lesbian couple from Lancaster County — were consolidated. The Superior Court en banc, in an opinion written by Judge Correale F. Stevens, said the Adoption Act would not allow a "non-spouse" to adopt a child without a natural parent relinquishing his or her rights. While the Supreme Court recognized that a same-sex partner cannot be considered a "spouse" under the Pennsylvania Defense of Marriage Act, the justices said application of the Adoption Act had to take into account the best interest of the child. The justices’ interpretation opened the door wide for judicial discretion to allow second-parent adoption. The impact of R.B.F. and R.C.F. can be seen in countless schools and on youth athletic fields throughout Pennsylvania, as in the last 11 years it has knit together thousands of families.
Hiller v. Fausey (2006)
The high court approved as constitutional amendments to the Pennsylvania Domestic Code expanding the right of a grandparent to seek partial custody or visitation rights to his or her grandchildren. The code section said that when one of a child’s parents is deceased, the grandparents on that side may be granted rights by a court in the best interest of the child. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision provided a sharp contrast to the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Troxel v. Granville, which elevated a parent’s constitutional right to autonomy in child-rearing over any grandparental right. In Hiller, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found the law passed by the General Assembly was distinct from that rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in Troxel. The class of grandparents conferred rights under the Pennsylvania Domestic Code was far more narrowly drawn, the justices said. They went on to reason that the best interest of the child could provide a compelling state interest for a court to decide on the child’s need for personal contact with the grandparents related to the child’s deceased parent.
Riverwalk Casino v. Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (2007)
The first batch of applications to operate casinos in Pennsylvania was like a gold rush. The Gaming Control Board had the job of vetting the applicants to make sure they met the state’s standards, and also had to decide which licensees would best serve the gaming market and produce the most tax revenue for the state. It was inevitable that the board’s decisions would be appealed to the Supreme Court. How the justices would treat those appeals would determine the autonomy of the new regulatory body and have an impact on the infant industry, on which the General Assembly and Governor Edward G. Rendell pinned their hopes for property tax relief.
Gbur v. Golio (2009)
This is a case the Supreme Court decided, but one where it could not make law. Splitting 3-3 on their reasoning, the justices let stand a Superior Court decision allowing for cross-specialty expert testimony in a medical malpractice case governed by the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Act. In Gbur, testimony from an expert in radiation oncology was offered in a medical malpractice case involving a urologist. The frontline appeals court said that under MCARE, the expert witness had a background in the subspecialty practiced by the defendant doctor and that he could therefore offer an opinion on the defendant’s standard of care. While Saylor and Justice Jane Cutler Greenspan each wrote opinions upholding the result, they diverged on their reasoning. The splintered Gbur court therefore could not make law on a vitally important aspect of litigation under MCARE. The Gbur case thus serves as a cautionary tale, as the high court today is short one justice and thus susceptible to deadlock.
Slippery Rock ASD v. Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (2011)
Are charter schools, by accepting pupils for pre-kindergarten programs, poaching students from public schools? That was the subtext of Slippery Rock, in which the school district opposed state funding of charter school offerings that are not matched by the public school district. In Slippery Rock, the justices said that a cyber-charter school could not demand public money for pre-K offerings to 4-year-old pupils when the public school district began instruction at age 5. The Supreme Court reversed a Commonwealth Court opinion that upheld the Department of Education’s decision that the cyber-charter school should receive funding for the pre-K program.
Beard v. Johnson & Johnson (2012)
In a decision that could transform the weighing of central issues of fact in design-defect cases, the Supreme Court directed trial courts conducting a risk-utility analysis of an allegedly defective product with more than one intended use to consider all of those uses, rather than just the one that allegedly resulted in harm. Writing for the majority, Saylor said that to deal with design defect with respect to only one use was "to put on blinders." In assessing product design, the majority said, all of its intended uses had to be assigned some weight.
Betz v. Pneumo-Abex (2012)
This case cleared up Pennsylvania’s approach to admitting expert opinion in asbestos products liability actions. The application of Frye standards to expert opinion is a perennial hot-button issue in litigation, and Pennsylvania is one of the most active forums in the country for asbestos litigation. In Betz, the high court, in an opinion written by Saylor, decided unanimously to reject a plaintiff’s theory that "each and every breath" taken of asbestos fiber contributes substantially to asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. In so holding, Saylor said an expert opinion stating just that would not withstand analysis under the Frye standard and could not be presented to a jury. Saylor said it would not be viable for the court to "indulge in a fiction" that any exposure, no matter how minimal, could be a substantial factor in causing an asbestos-related disease.
Six L’s Packing v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Williams) (2012)
In one of the most fundamental issues of workers’ compensation law, the Supreme Court last year settled years of uncertainty around the definition of "statutory employer" status, holding that property owners that are regular users of services may be liable for providing workers’ compensation benefits. In Six L’s, the justices unanimously decided that a tomato grower was secondarily liable to pay the workers’ compensation benefits of a truck driver it hired to deliver its produce, even though it had no direct control or authority over the truck driver. The key consideration, the court reasoned in another Saylor opinion, was that the General Assembly intended to require those "contracting with others to perform work which is a regular or recurrent part of their businesses to assure that the employees of those others are covered by workers’ compensation insurance, on pain of assuming secondary liability for benefits payment upon a default."