When it comes to the largest reported verdicts and settlements outside Allegheny County and Philadelphia over the last two decades, Northeastern Pennsylvania counties dominate the map.
On the list of top verdicts and settlements compiled by The Legal’s annual publication, PaLaw magazine, Luzerne County plaintiffs took home the largest cumulative amount since 1994, with a total of $179.8 million. Lackawanna County, which saw a total of $139.8 million in top reported awards since 1994, was the county with the third-highest total amount. Delaware County, which reported the second-highest number at $157.1 million, was the only Philadelphia suburban county to place in the top four. Lehigh County saw the fourth-largest sum of high-value awards over the past 20 years, with $130.3 million. Montgomery County, with $110.1 million, rounded out the top five.
Since 1994, PaLaw magazine has compiled a list of the largest verdicts and settlements in Pennsylvania as reported in The Legal and the Law Weekly. The annual list began with 25 entries before expanding to 50 entries per year.
Including all common pleas and federal courts across the state, PaLaw documented a total of 884 verdicts and settlements between 1994 and early 2013. Rural and suburban counties alone saw a total of 192 awards make the list, or 21.7 percent of all top awards.
Sixty cases, or roughly 31 percent of those awards, were settlements. That number aligns with the urban counties of Philadelphia and Allegheny, where 142, or 32 percent, of the 450 top awards since 1994 were settlements.
The plurality of awards in suburban and rural counties stemmed from medical malpractice cases—58 of the 192 reported results, or approximately 30 percent. Motor vehicle cases had the second-highest number of large awards, with 32, or 16 percent, and general negligence cases accounted for 9 percent of the subset with 18 total high-value awards.
Including Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, approximately 21 percent of the common pleas results, or 189 cases, stemmed from medical malpractice, followed by 85 negligence cases, 81 motor vehicle cases, 74 wrongful death cases and 68 products liability cases.
Northeastern Pa. Trends
Although these numbers deal exclusively with verdicts larger than $1 million, according to some attorneys who spoke with the Law Weekly, the results are somewhat indicative of the courts as a whole.
Attorney Dave L. Lutz of Angino & Rovner, who primarily practices around Harrisburg, said that while it is well known that Northeastern Pennsylvania is more friendly to plaintiffs than the rural counties across the state, it is often considered the second-friendliest region for plaintiffs, even over some of the suburban Philadelphia counties.
“It’s the folks that come from hard-working, coal-region, Democratic backgrounds that are more generous than folks in the middle of the state,” he said. “For most practitioners, you know where the county line is.”
Of the counties that saw at least five of the highest-value awards since 1994, Lehigh County had the top average. Of its 13 largest reported verdicts, the county had an average of just over $10 million per award. Berks County had the second-highest average, with just over $9 million, and Lackawanna County came in third with an average of $8.2 million. Luzerne had the fourth-highest average, with $6.9 million, followed closely by Delaware County, which had an average of $6.8 million in its 23 high-value verdicts since 1994.
In the past five years, however, the number of seven-figure awards in Northeastern Pennsylvania has dropped off.
Since 2008, Luzerne County has seen a total of just three awards over $1 million, including two $3 million verdicts and one $1.5 million settlement. Lackawanna County likewise has had just three high-value awards since 2008, with two verdicts, one of which was $20.5 million, and one settlement, which was $11 million. According to records, the county has not had a high-value award since 2010.
According to Scranton-based defense attorney Daniel E. Cummins, several northeastern counties, primarily Monroe and Pike counties, have seen an uptick in plaintiff-friendly juries because of the influx of former New York and New Jersey residents.
Cummins said that Northeastern Pennsylvania juries on the whole tend to be moderate or conservative, producing just a few “blips” of high awards.
“The sense up here is that there’s been some big verdicts over the years, but not to the extent that defense attorneys are reluctant to take their cases to trial,” he said. “From what I can recall, those [high-award] cases involved egregious facts with sympathetic plaintiffs.”
Paul T. Oven of Dougherty Leventhal & Price said that, aside from a few “aberrations,” juries in Northeastern Pennsylvania have become more conservative in recent years.
“I think it’s the economics of the area,” he explained. “The economy is trending downward. The average household incomes, that’s heading down as well. They don’t have a big tax base in Scranton or Wilkes-Barre. The value of a dollar is certainly greater at this point.”
The largest verdict in the rural and suburban counties since 1994 was the Berks County $46.2 million wrongful death case of Torres v. Wachovia Bank, which came down in 2010. The case involved a Wachovia Bank teller who was shot and killed in a Wachovia Bank parking lot by her husband. The award was against the estranged husband, while the bank and parking lot owners, which were sued for negligent security, settled out of court.
The second-highest verdict in the rural and suburban counties came from the Delaware County motor vehicle case Robley v. PennDOT, in which the jury awarded $38.2 million in 2004.
In 1999, a Lehigh County jury awarded $33.1 million for a medical malpractice case, Welteroth v. Spectrascan, and in 2000, the parties in a fraud case from Perry County, South Butler School District v. Keystone Financial, agreed to settle for $30.5 million. The fifth-largest award was a Delaware County verdict totaling $30.3 million in a contract case, GMH Associates v. Prudential Realty Group.
The smallest verdict stemmed from a medical malpractice case in Dauphin County, where the jury in Fromm v. Hershey Medical Center awarded $1.2 million.
Turn of the Millennium
The years that saw the highest sums for rural and suburban counties were at the turn of the millennium, with 1999 hitting $123 million, 2000 peaking at $131 million (the highest for any single year) and 2001 reaching $114 million. Those three years saw a total of 11 awards cracking eight digits, with three reaching above $30 million.
The lowest single year was 2009, when the highest-value awards in suburban and rural counties totaled only $19 million. Only two top verdicts and one seven-figure settlement were reported that year, the highest of which was a $12.5 million breach of fiduciary duty verdict.
The other years that were likewise unable to crack the $30 million mark were 1994, 1995 and 1997. PaLaw only included 25 results in its reports for those years. In total, those three years saw only 17 high-value awards, just two of which were higher than $10 million.
The year with the largest annual average for awards was 2010, at $13.8 million. That year saw just six high-value verdicts, but the Torres wrongful death suit and the workplace accident case Ferguson v. Horsehead, which netted a $16.5 million verdict, pushed the average over the second-highest year, 1999, which saw an average of $13.75 million stemming from nine cases.
Scott B. Cooper of Schmidt Kramer said that while awards from the different counties generally fall within the cost of living for a particular area, people are becoming less focused on tort reform and are becoming more concerned with proper compensation.