Negligent Entrustment • Worksite Accidents • Comparative Negligence/Liability • Jury Verdicts • New Trial • Punitive Damages

Rolland v. Senn, PICS Case No. 14-0140 (C.P. Philadelphia Jan. 31 2014) Younge, J. (44 pages).

Where a jury verdict failed to apportion liability to the plaintiff in a worksite accident case where the plaintiff may have been the supervisor at the worksite, and where partial summary judgment against one of the defendants resulted in an inference of negligence/liability by the other defendants, and where newly discovered evidence surprised one of the defendants and frustrated their ability to present their defense, the weight of the evidence was against the verdict and an award of a new trial was proper. Awarded.

Plaintiff Ruick Rolland’s leg was amputated by a track loader, leased by defendant Modern Equipment to defendant United Construction Services, which was being operated by the 10-year-old son of defendant Stephen Senn on a construction site owned by defendant Bruce Irrgang.

During the trial, the actions of the plaintiff caused the discovery of a potentially fraudulent workers’ compensation claim filed by the plaintiff and all defendants with the exception of Modern, and which potentially established plaintiff as the site supervisor at the time of the accident. In the interest of judicial economy, the court denied Modern’s motion for a mistrial and excluded the claim from evidence.

A jury apportioned liability amongst the various defendants, but assigned no liability to plaintiff. Upon post-trial motions, the court ruled in favor of granting a new trial, finding that the verdict shocked the conscience as the weight of the evidence did not support the jury’s findings.

Specific to its ruling, the court found that the weight of the evidence established that plaintiff was also comparatively negligent for his injury, and therefore the jury’s verdict that apportioned no liability to the plaintiff shocked the conscience; moreover, the court found that it erred when it denied Modern’s motion for a new trial, as the discovery of the workers’ compensation claim unfairly surprised Modern and frustrated their ability to present their defense.

In addition, while not overruling the pre-trial motion court, the court found that the award of partial summary judgment against Modern as to the issue of negligence may have prejudiced Modern and led to an illogical case. In particular, the court noted that Modern leased the track loader to plaintiff, who signed on behalf of United. The court found it illogical that Modern was precluded from defending itself on the issue of negligence while United was permitted to present a defense, and also noted that the finding of negligence by Modern essentially presupposed negligence on the part of United and other defendants who had actual control of the track loader.

The court also held that if a new trial was to be granted to one defendant, Modern, it should be granted to all defendants; the court argued that plaintiff should be required to carry the burden of proof of negligence by all the defendants, while defendants should be permitted to present their defenses as to the negligence charge.