Schmidt Kramer partner Scott Cooper cowrote an in-depth article for The Legal Intelligencer about the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s ruling in Spencer v. Johnson.
In the article, Cooper explains why he disagreed with another commentary on the ruling that said the court’s opinion has no value. Cooper says the Superior Court ruling was straightforward and not merely “dicta” (non-legally binding comments or hypothetical observations made by a judge). As such, the court’s conclusion about innocent plaintiffs being able to recover under the old joint-and-several liability statute is grounded in the law.
This type of argument was made all the way back in 2014. Cooper cited another article he cowrote for the Widener Law Journal titled, “The Royal Nonesuch: How Tort Reformers Are Pulling One Over on Pennsylvania.”
In common law, innocent plaintiffs could recover compensation from any defendant who is found to be at fault, if they were then responsible for paying the full amount of a verdict. If a plaintiff was found to be even one percent at fault, they could not recover.
When Pennsylvania passed its Comparative Negligence Act, the old common law rule about one percent fault was changed. The new law said plaintiffs were barred from a recovery only if their percentage of fault was more than 50 percent.
The Fair Share Act, which passed in 2011, did not change this rule. This act only replaced the joint and several liability rules from the Comparative Negligence Act. The Comparative Negligence Act only applies to a claim if the plaintiff is found at least one percent at fault.
When the plaintiff bears no fault, common law rules about joint and several liability continue to apply. In Spencer v. Johnson, the Superior Court reached this same conclusion. The court said the plain language of the Fair Share Act does not apply when there is no allegation the plaintiff acted with negligence.
New statutes do not make changes to common law or other existing laws beyond what is expressly written in the provisions of these new statutes.
Cooper noted that if the defendants in the Spencer v. Johnson case thought the court was just offering up dicta, they could have filed an appeal based on that, but they chose not to.