Harrisburg, PA July 19 2017 The Pennsylvania Superior Court has tossed a $38.5 million punitive damages verdict awarded to the families of two Kraft employees who were fatally gunned down by a disgruntled co-worker.
A three-judge panel of the court ruled Tuesday in Wilson v. U.S. Security Associates to grant the defendants' motion seeking judgment not withstanding the verdict with regard to the punitive damages award. The verdict was the largest award to come out of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in 2015.
On appeal, the defendants specifically contended that the plaintiffs introduced the claim for punitive damages outside the statute of limitations.
According to Judge William Platt, who wrote the precedential decision, the plaintiffs initially sought punitive damages, but later the parties stipulated to keep punitive damages out of the case. However, after the plaintiffs obtained new counsel and midway through the 2015 trial, plaintiffs were allowed to introduce the punitive damages claim.
Platt said, while the plaintiffs may have been allowed to reinstate the punitive damages claim despite the stipulation, the trial court erred in allowing the plaintiffs to reintroduce the claim after the statute of limitations had expired.
"We conclude that the introduction of a claim for punitive damages, particularly after it had been previously withdrawn, improperly added a new cause of action after the statute of limitations had run," Platt said in the 56-page opinion. "Appellees' arguments (and those of the trial court) to the contrary are unpersuasive."
The ruling left intact the $8 million compensatory damages that were awarded to the two estates.
Kline & Specter attorney Charles "Chip" Becker, who represented the plaintiffs, said the opinion misapprehended the case and could cause confusion regarding future punitive damages claims.
"The decision concerning punitive damages badly misapprehends key facts and developments in the case and misapplies relevant Pennsylvania law," Becker said in an emailed statement. "If permitted to stand, it will strip substantive rights and create a procedural morass for the litigation of a punitive damage claim."
The defendants' attorney, Marshall Dennehey Coleman Warner & Goggin attorney Teresa Sachs, said in an emailed statement, "I am gratified that the Superior Court reversed the untimely punitive damages claim, and will be reviewing the entire decision with my clients."
The Philadelphia jury that weighed the punitive damages claim handed up its award in March 2015, about a month after a separate jury awarded the compensatory damages to the estates of Tanya Wilson and LaTonya Brown.
Attorney Shanin Specter, who tried the case, had argued that security officials at the factory were reckless for failing to properly escort the shooter, Yvonne Hiller, to her vehicle immediately after she was suspended.
According to Specter, less than two hours before the shooting, Hiller had gotten into a "fracas" with Brown, Wilson and another employee, and Hiller was immediately suspended following the incident. The plaintiffs also argued the security company failed to notify people in the building that Hiller had returned to the factory with a gun.
In total, the defendants raised nine issues on appeal, and requested, among other things, a new trial, or a reduction of the compensatory award. The plaintiffs also appealed on two points, but, other than the punitive damages award, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court's rulings.
Regarding the punitive damages claim, the plaintiffs contended that reintroducing the claims simply constituted an amendment to the ad damnum clause outlining the damages, rather than a separate cause of action.
Platt, however, disagreed, and further added in a footnote that allowing the punitive damages claim to proceed midtrial was also prejudicial to the defendant.