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During the oral argument session that is set to begin Tuesday the state Supreme Court is set to wade into muddy waters over quantum meruit claims for non-partner lawyers, and hear arguments on an issue that some say could have a chilling effect on the workers’ compensation bar.
A full complement of the high court is scheduled to begin its two-day oral argument session Tuesday in Pittsburgh, with disputes involving attorney fees, state and hospital liability and gas drilling regulations set to highlight the session. The seven justices are expected to hear a total of nine cases, with five set for argument Tuesday and four scheduled for argument Wednesday.
Attorney Fee Disputes
On the first day of the argument session, the justices are expected to hear two cases about attorney fee disputes—one involving quantum meruit for non-partners and the other involving refunds for attorneys representing employers in workers’ compensation cases.
In Meyer, Darragh, Buckler, Bebenek & Eck v. Malone Middleman, which is scheduled to be argued Tuesday morning, the justices are set to consider a $15,000 quantum meruit award that the state Superior Court recently vacated.
The case stems from a former Meyer Darragh Buckler Bebenek & Eck attorney who represented an estate involved in a motor vehicle litigation, but, after leaving the firm, agreed Meyer Darragh could receive two-thirds of the attorneys fees. The client, however, subsequently retained the attorney, who had joined Malone Middleman. Following the change in representation, Malone Middleman contested the fee agreement, arguing it was not bound by the agreement between the originating attorney and Meyer Darragh.
The trial court eventually awarded Meyer Darragh $15,000 on the quantum meruit claim, but not before the case went before the Supreme Court in 2016. In that prior appeal, the justices said Meyer Darragh had not been entitled to breach of contract damages because the lawyer who entered into the agreement had not been a partner.
Three justices, however, said the quantum meruit issue presented a ”predicament,” since it imposed liability on a client who already paid fees.
Also on Tuesday, the justices are also scheduled to hear a case that some attorneys fear may have a “chilling effect” on lawyers representing injured workers.
In County of Allegheny v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Parker), the justices are set to review a Commonwealth Court decision that said a lawyer may be ordered to pay the employer’s attorney fees for unreasonable contest when it prevails on appeal.
The justices agreed to hear argument specifically on the question of whether the case was wrongly decided, and “whether the disgorgement and return of unreasonable contest attorney’s fees when the employer ultimately prevails is better left to the legislature rather than the courts.”
Hep C, Guardrail Liability
The justices are also set to hear arguments about two very different but important liability issues—whether a hospital should be liable for not reporting potentially dangerous activities of a lab technician, and whether the state can be held liable for its design of a guardrail.
In Walters v. UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside, which is set for argument Wednesday, the justices are expected to consider whether the Superior Court properly reinstated four civil suits against the Pittsburgh-area medical facility and the hospital’s staffing agency.
The suits all stem from the conduct of David Kwiatkowski, who in 2013 was sentenced to 39 years in prison for causing more than 40 people to become infected with hepatitis C. Kwiatkowski caused the outbreak by injecting himself with painkillers, like fentanyl and morphine, while at the hospitals where he worked. He would then refill the syringes with water and re-shelve them to avoid being detected.
The first case the justices are set to hear Tuesday also deals with liability. Specifically, the justices are set to hear arguments about whether a prior ruling absolving the state of liability for failing to erect a guardrail should extend to claims alleging a guardrail was negligently designed. That case is Cagey v. PennDOT.