The Pennsylvania Superior Court has reversed a finding that the owners of a garage were contributorily negligent in the case of a fire that destroyed the structure, ultimately putting the insurance company on the hook for damages.
A three-judge panel reversed the ruling of a Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas judge that plaintiffs Adam and Jennifer Kane could not recover because of their contributory negligence. A jury had found the couple 25 percent negligent and Atlantic States Insurance Co. 75 percent negligent for the destruction of the garage.
The plaintiffs, who appealed, alleged that their insurance agent told them that their home insurance policy covered fire damage to the garage, when in fact it did not.
While Superior Court Judge Jack Panella wrote in the court’s opinion that the Dauphin County judge’s decision to apply the contributory negligence standard rather than the comparative negligence standard was appropriate in this case, he noted that the decision to mold the jury’s verdict, initially in favor of the Kanes, in favor of the insurance company was an error.
The Kanes argued their contributory negligence was not a substantial factor in causing their financial losses and that they are not barred from recovery under the contributory negligence doctrine. Atlantic States countered that the Kanes waived their right to challenge the issue by failing to object to the verdict slip.
“There is no question as to the jury’s finding that appellees were negligent, and that appellees’ negligence was a proximate cause of appellants’ failure to obtain insurance on the attached garage,” Panella said. “Thus, appellees are properly held liable for all of appellants’ damages. Further, despite appellees’ attempt to classify this as an ‘inconsistent verdict,’ there is no confusion apparent on the verdict slip regarding appellants’ contributory negligence. The jury clearly found that appellants’ negligence was not a substantial factor in causing their losses.”
Panella added, “As the jury found that appellants’ negligence was not a substantial factor in bringing about their harm, their contributory negligence does not bar them from recovering from appellees. Because the 25 percent of negligence assigned to appellants … was not specified as causal negligence, or negligence which had a substantial factor in bringing about appellants’ harm, it does not conflict with the finding that appellants’ negligence was not a substantial factor.”
Charles Haddick Jr. of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote represents the insurance company and declined to comment.
Richard Wix of Wix, Wenger & Weidner represents the plaintiffs and did not respond to a request for comment.