The state Superior Court has withdrawn a decision that tossed $38 million in punitive damages awarded over a fatal shooting at a Kraft factory, and decided that an expanded panel of judges should reconsider the case.
The intermediate court, late last month, agreed to have an en banc panel review the case Wilson v. U.S. Security Associates, which caused a stir in the legal community after the multimillion-dollar punitive damages award was tossed on procedural grounds. As part of the court’s Sept. 26 order granting reargument, the court withdrew the prior opinion, which several attorneys said would pose significant hurdles for bringing punitive damages claims.
“We are heartened by the order granting reargument, which explicitly withdraws the panel opinion,” Kline & Specter attorney Shanin Specter, who is representing the plaintiffs, said in an emailed statement. ”We hope the en banc panel will uphold the judgment and reaffirm what has been a fair and efficient system for the litigation of cases involving punitive damages.”
Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin attorney Teresa Sachs, who is representing U.S. Security Associates Inc., said she felt the three-judge panel reached the correct result in the case.
“We are confident the court en banc is going to reach the same result in this case,” she said.
The case initially resulted in awards of $8 million in compensatory damages and $38.5 million in punitive damages, but the punitive damages award was tossed by a three-judge Superior Court panel in July.
Led by Senior Judge William Platt, the majority held that the plaintiffs were time-barred from seeking punitive damages in their lawsuit stemming from the shooting that left two women dead. As part of the decision, the unanimous panel held that the plaintiffs’ attempts to reinstate their punitive damages claim “improperly added a new cause of action.”
According to the opinion, although the plaintiffs had initially sought punitive damages, they later stipulated to strike the punitive damages—including the words “reckless, outrageous, intentional, and/or wanton”—from the complaint without prejudice. However, after the plaintiffs retained new counsel, they sought to reinstate the punitive damages claims. The trial court allowed it, but Platt said the plaintiffs were simply too late.
In their application for reargument, the plaintiffs said the panel misapplied precedent holding that punitive damages are an element of damages rather than a cause of action. The plaintiffs also said the ruling creates a “morass,” and muddles the way claims for punitive damages are typically handled.
The Pennsylvania Association for Justice, the Philadelphia law firm Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky and the Pennsylvania Defense Institute each filed an amicus brief regarding whether the Superior Court should have an en banc panel review the prior panel’s decision.
Schmidt Kramer attorney Scott Cooper, who is active in the PAJ, said that, with the three-judge panel’s decision withdrawn, the en banc review does not need to focus on the same factors that prior decision hinged on.
“Basically, the slate is wiped clean. That opinion is no longer there,” he said. “As far as the law is concerned, punitive damages are an element of the damages, not an additional cause of action.”
Cooper said that, although he agreed with the trial court’s decisions to leave the full verdict intact, the en banc panel could still potentially dismiss the punitive damages without wading into how punitive damages need to be pleaded.
“You could certainly make a ruling in the case without that issue even coming up,” Cooper said.
Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI.