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Three-Judge Panel Says Fair Share Act Only Applies if Injury Victims are Comparatively at Fault

desk with books and gavelA recent ruling by the Pennsylvania Superior Court could change the way lower courts have been applying the state’s Fair Share Act.

The three-judge panel said a plain reading of the Fair Share Act makes it clear it should only apply when plaintiffs are comparatively at fault. This is a departure from the way courts have traditionally been applying this statute.  

The court said if the plaintiff does not bear liability, common-law principles of joint and several liability should be applied, as they were before the Fair Share Act went into effect.

The Superior Court’s ruling came in the case of Spencer v. Johnson on March 18. The court said it did not want to disregard the plain language of the law. “…it would have been improper to apply a statute that addresses the scenarios where a claimant may have contributed to the accident…”

The Fair Share Act says at-fault parties are only responsible for the percentage of damages that represents their percentage of fault. They cannot be made to pay all damages unless they are more than 60 percent at fault.

Before 2011, when the Fair Share Act went into effect, a defendant who was found to hold any percentage of liability could be made to pay all damages. This approach is what is called for under joint and several liability.  

Schmidt Kramer partner Scott Cooper says this ruling would limit the Fair Share Act to situations where the victim is partially at fault. Cooper said he has brought up this issue for years and this ruling is a significant shift in the way courts have nearly universally applied the Fair Share Act, even if comparative negligence was not an issue in the case.

Attorneys have been litigating based on the Fair Share Act, even if their clients bear no fault, Cooper says. It was assumed this law applied.

Spencer v. Johnson

The Superior Court’s ruling mostly upheld a $13 million judgment in favor of a pedestrian who was hit and killed by a car.

The victim was hit by a trade union vehicle driven by a non-union employee who was drunk. The victim was crushed by the 2009 Ford Escape being driven by a union worker’s husband.

The jury in the case decided the driver was 36 percent at fault, the driver’s wife was 19 percent liable, and the trade union was 45 percent at fault. The victim was awarded $12.9 million in compensation.