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It was a criminal year for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2000. While the justices made an impact with key rulings in the realms of workers’ compensation and medical malpractice, many of the most significant rulings dealt with criminal practice. But the justices’ influence in the past year went beyond case law. The court adopted a “Code of Civility” for lawyers and judges throughout the commonwealth. The code addresses the conduct of lawyers both inside and outside the courtroom, stating they should “act in a manner consistent with the fair, efficient and humane system of justice” and “treat all participants in the legal process in a civil, professional and courteous manner at all times.” Justices Sandra Schultz Newman and Russell Nigro kept busy beyond the bench with pet projects of their own. Nigro spearheaded a program called “Bridge the Gap,” which requires law students in their final year of school to enter a mandatory program teaching them how to avoid disciplinary action. Newman began an initiative to bring uniformity to the local court rules. She hopes to complete the project by this summer. As far as opinions go, there were a quite a few landmarks. In one of the most notable on the civil side, the court cleared up the confusion over the burden of proof for mental injuries. CRIMINAL PRACTICE But it was criminal law that took the front seat in the court’s docket. The justices resolved some major issues, including the constitutionality of several statutes. In one major ruling, Commonwealth v. Tharp, the unanimous court declared that a voter-approved amendment to the state constitution granting prosecutors the right to request a jury trial is constitutionally sound. The court also ruled unanimously that the Juvenile Act, as amended in 1995, is not unconstitutional for placing the burden of proof on minor defendants who want to get their cases transferred from criminal to juvenile court in Commonwealth v. Cotto. And in Commonwealth v. McCafferty, the justices said the Driver’s License Compact of 1961, which was incorporated into the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code in 1996, is constitutional and does not violate the double jeopardy, equal protection, or due process clauses of the U.S. or state constitutions. Under the compact, Pennsylvania may suspend the licenses of people convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol in other states that are party to the compact if the offenses can pass a substantial-similarity analysis. The ruling freed hundreds of cases across the commonwealth that were put on hold pending the high court’s decision. In another major ruling, Commonwealth v. Nixon, the court refused to accept the “mature-minor doctrine,” which would act as an affirmative defense to a charge based on a parent’s duty to provide medical care to a minor. And, resolving an evidence issue, the court, ruling in Commonwealth v. McPherson, said the commonwealth does not have to present relation-back expert testimony in a driving under the influence case if the chemical testing of the person suspected of driving drunk is conducted within three hours of driving. Other key decisions involved searches and seizures. A 5-2 court decided to adopt the “plain feel doctrine” in Commonwealth v. Zhahir. The doctrine allows police to seize contraband that they discover through their sense of touch during a lawful search. In three companion cases — Commonwealth v. Wimbush, Commonwealth v. White and Commonwealth v. Goodwin — the court ruled that unless police observe suspicious activity on their own, an anonymous tip call to police is not enough to meet the reasonable suspicion standard to stop and search someone. Random bus searches to uncover possible drug activity absent reasonable suspicion or probable cause are unconstitutional, a divided court ruled in Commonwealth v. Polo. WORKERS COMPENSATION The court made a splash last year with two heavy-hitters in the workers’ comp arena. In Davis v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Swarthmore Borough), the court ended the debate over the burden of proof for psychic injuries. Whether you call the claim mental/mental or mental/physical, the burden of proof is the same, the justices said. The claimant must show that he or she has been subjected to abnormal working conditions. Justice Nigro filed the lone dissent in the case, stating that the majority incorrectly relabeled a physical injury as a psychological injury with “physical manifestations.” And, in a ruling that will affect thousands of truck drivers and motor-carrier businesses throughout the state, a severely divided court ruled that a driver who leases his truck out to a carrier is an independent contractor. That’s bad news for truck drivers because an independent contractor is not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. For the first time, the high court considered a 1995 amendment to the Workers’ Compensation Act dealing with hearing loss in LTV Steel Co. Inc. v. WCAB (Mozena) and USX Corp. v. WCAB (Rich). Paving the way for a slew of claimants to receive benefits, the unanimous court rejected the employers’ argument that under Act 1, they should not be responsible for the portion of a claimant’s hearing loss caused by presbycusis, a natural form of hearing loss. In a decision that will help define what it means to be involved in furthering your employer’s business, the justices said that a woman who saw her co-worker being stabbed while both were on a lunch break was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. The unanimous high court rejected the claimant’s argument in Kmart Corp. v. WCAB (Fitzsimmons) that she was furthering her employer’s business when she helped to disarm the attacker and administered CPR to the victim. Both employees were off the clock and on employer Kmart Corp.’s premises at the time of the stabbing. FAMILY LAW Family law issues did not play as significant a role in the court as in years past. However, the court did issue one surprising decision last January. In Charles v. Stehlik, six out of seven justices upheld an Allegheny County Common Pleas Court ruling — affirmed by the Superior Court — that a stepfather should retain primary custody of his stepson over the natural father’s objections. Also, the justices reaffirmed a plurality ruling from 1996 in Meyer v. Meyer, holding that an early-retirement incentive obtained after a couple separated — and gained in part by adding on years of pre-marital military service — can be considered marital property. The decision upholds Gordon v. Gordon, in which the justices said early-retirement incentives accepted by an employee after separation, which effectively increase that employee’s retirement benefits, are to be included in the marital estate. BUSINESS LAW AND AGENCY LAW The court ended a decade-long feud over control of the Hanover Foods Corp. in December. It held that an attempt by the company’s chairman to seize control from family members by changing the company charter was not a breach of the voting trustee’s fiduciary duty because the move was also made in an effort to boost profits. The ruling in Warehime v. Warehime reversed a divided Superior Court decision holding that John Warehime acted improperly because the charter change was a “radical structural transformation” actually designed to secure control from family members. The Supreme Court said the Superior Court held the shareholder to too high a standard. On the agency-law front, the court saved tax preparation company H&R Block from a class action suit from customers who receive loans based on their prospective tax refunds through the company’s “Rapid Refund” program. The majority in Basile v. H&R Block said the company’s activities surrounding the acquisition of the loan were not enough to establish an agency relationship that imposes a fiduciary duty to inform its customers that the transaction was, in fact, a loan. MEDICAL MALPRACTICE The CAT Fund came into play in a couple of key med-mal decisions. One might make it harder for plaintiffs to get paid, while the other might make that task somewhat easier. The ruling against plaintiffs’ interests is Dellenbaugh v. Medical Professional Liability Catastrophe Loss Fund. The justices said in that case that the CAT Fund is not responsible for providing statutory excess liability coverage in a medical malpractice action against a doctor because the doctor failed to pay his annual surcharge to the fund. But in Legal Capital LLC v. Medical Professional Liability Catastrophe Loss Fund, the justices said the CAT Fund was authorized under the Healthcare Services Malpractice Act to acknowledge and participate in the assignments of Legal Capital LLC. Legal Capital provides accelerated payment to med-mal plaintiffs who have settled cases or have been awarded judgments and are awaiting payment from the CAT Fund. In exchange, the plaintiffs assign all or part of their rights to the settlement or judgment proceeds to Legal Capital. In a much-anticipated ruling on mental health professionals’ duty to third parties, a 4-2 court said a therapist did not owe a duty to the parents of a girl who falsely accused them of abusing her. The ruling in Althaus v. Cohen disproves some attorneys’ concerns that the high court was moving toward a trend of extending doctor’s duty to third parties. EMPLOYMENT LAW The justices handed a sweeping victory to plaintiffs with disabilities in Trowbridge v. Scranton Artificial Limb Co., ruling that a claim brought under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act is not barred by the previous receipt of Social Security Administration disability benefits. In a blow to employees, a divided court ruled in April that a woman could not bring a wrongful-discharge claim under the public-policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine based solely on the violation of a federal regulation. The majority opinion in McLaughlin v. Gastrointestinal Specialists Inc. reflected a strong intention to protect the commonwealth’s at-will employment doctrine. In a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Stephen Zappala, Nigro said he believed it untrue that no state public policy is violated when an employee is fired for making safety complaints to his or her employer, as was the employee in McLaughlin. In June, the justices overturned the rule that employees are automatically assumed to have an obligation to refund cash advances to their employers after they are terminated. But the decision by the majority does not mean that employees will never find themselves stuck with a bill to repay advances or draws on commission. The majority in Banks Engineering Co. Inc. v. Polons directed trial courts to decide each matter on a case-by-case basis, looking to the contract’s language for guidance. IMMUNITY A 5-2 court stripped plaintiffs of the ability to sue the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for failing to erect a guardrail along a highway in Dean v. PennDOT and Lockwood v. City of Pittsburgh. The ruling in PennDOT’s favor was made in two separate cases, one involving the real property exception to sovereign immunity and the other involving the streets exception to governmental immunity. The majority in both held that because the lack of a guardrail is not a dangerous condition of commonwealth property, a claim for injuries arising out of that absence can never fall under either exception. A unanimous court severely limited the government-contractor defense to products liability cases in Connor v. Quality Coach. The justices reversed and remanded the Superior Court’s ruling that a company contracted by a government agency to modify the van of a person with special needs was immune from a suit stemming from its allegedly negligent design. The court refused to give weight to a fear that has caused other courts to broaden the defense; those courts have said that if contractors know they don’t have immunity, they will hike up the cost of their services. Another case, Stone v. York Haven Power Co., was anticipated to clear up the confusion surrounding the Recreational Use of Land and Water Act. In several recent decisions, the lower courts have struggled with the issue of whether land opened for recreation must be “unimproved” in order for the landowner to gain the immunity provided in the act. But the court decided to put its spotlight elsewhere. Instead of concentrating on whether the dam was an improvement to the land, Justice Ronald Castille focused his nine-page opinion on the degree of maintenance needed to preserve the property and the court’s interest in encouraging landowners to open their property to the public. OTHER HIGHLIGHTS In a decision that insurance practitioners had been eagerly awaiting, Winslow-Quattlebaum v. Maryland Insurance Group, the court said single-page underinsured/stacking rejection forms are valid and enforceable. Billionaire Walter Annenberg and his wife were declared not entitled to a full refund of the personal-property taxes that they paid on stock in out-of-state companies in Annenberg v. Commonwealth. The court ruled that the counties defending the tax provision did not prove that it is constitutional. But the constitutionally offensive “stock clause” — which effectively provided an exemption for stock in in-state companies — could be severed from the property tax statute, leaving a constitutional tax on stock held in all companies. Someone who does not witness tortious conduct being inflicted upon a family member cannot recover damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress, the court ruled in Taylor v. Albert Einstein Medical Center. Although the court has not officially adopted Section 46(2) of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, the long-awaited decision has made it clear that actually witnessing the conduct is crucial to the claim. In Aldridge v. Edmunds, the court held that under a “limited” exception to the rule against hearsay, learned treatises may be used on direct examination of an expert witness for the purpose of explaining the expert’s opinion. In so ruling, the justices clarified that they were rejecting the wholesale exception to the hearsay rule for authoritative. In Harmon v. Borah, the justices ruled that a judge-witness conversation does not automatically support a motion for a new trial.

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