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Pennsylvania Court Affirms Plaintiff Not Entitled to New Trial When Jury Found Car Accident Did Not Cause Harm

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently addressed whether a plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit was entitled to a new trial against her automobile insurance company. In this case, the court analyzed whether the alleged error at the trial court level affected the jury’s verdict regarding causation.  After applying the two-part test, the court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion, and it upheld the jury’s finding that the accident did not cause the plaintiff’s harm.

Fran G. Zellat brought a personal injury lawsuit against Mary Ann McCulloch’s husband, Richard Beatty, due to an automobile accident. Ms. McCulloch rear-ended Ms. Zellat’s car.  After Mr. Beatty filed a summary judgment motion, Ms. Zellat filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment on the liability issue.  The motions were granted, so Mr. Beatty was dismissed as a defendant, and the negligence issue was entered in favor of Ms. Zellat. Ms. Zellat then joined Liberty Mutual, her insurance company, as a defendant and sought uninsured motorist (UM) benefits against them.

Before trial, the court granted Ms. McCulloch’s request that there be no mention of insurance at trial. At issue before the jury was whether Ms. McCulloch’s negligence in rear-ending Ms. Zellat caused harm to her, or whether Ms. Zellat suffered injuries from the accident.

Ms. Zellat suffered from previous upper back and shoulder pain, and she claimed that the accident resulted in lower back injuries that prevented her from working.  She sought over two million dollars in damages.

The instructions to the jury stated that Ms. McCulloch was negligent and the cause of the accident.  Regarding the issue of whether the accident caused harm to Ms. Zellat, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of Ms. McCulloch. They found the accident did not cause her harm and thus did not reach the question of the amount of damages. Ms. Zellat appealed and sought a new trial.

The appellate court stated their standard, which was abuse of discretion.  If the trial court did not clearly abuse their discretion, an appellate courts is not to interfere with their authority to grant or deny a new trial. A two-part analysis first asks whether an error resulted in prejudice, requiring a new trial.  Second, the harmless error doctrine is applied such that the error must have affected the verdict.

Ms. Zellat first contended she was denied due process because Liberty Mutual was not identified as a party defendant. First, the court stated the rule that evidence of insurance is irrelevant and prejudicial.  This was the basis for determining that the jury could not be told Liberty Mutual was a party defendant.

In this case, the negligent tortfeasor and the plaintiff’s UM insurance company were named defendants.  The jury was not aware that an insurance company was a party to the case. That does not warrant a new trial.

Ms. Zellat also claimed she was entitled to a new trial because the defense counsel improperly referenced her receipt of collateral source benefits in the form of disability benefits.  Ms. Zellat informed the jury that she helped her family financially, prior to the trial.  She insisted that as a result of the accident, she could not help her family anymore.  In response, the defense introduced evidence that she received about $8,000 monthly in disability benefits.

The court stated that the issue regarding improper references to benefits was waived because Ms. Zellat did not object during or after questioning.  Furthermore, since the jury found the accident did not cause Ms. Zellat harm, this issue remained only relevant to damages that potentially would have been awarded.

The court also rejected her claim that a typo on the verdict slip stating “case” rather than “cause” led to an error necessitating a new trial. The court stated that she had not objected to the slip before it was given to the jury.  Also, the jury was aware that factual cause and not “case” was the issue to be resolved.   The trial court did not abuse its discretion in declining to grant a new trial based on this mistake on the verdict slip.

In regard to Ms. Zellat’s claim that she was improperly questioned about the contents of a doctor’s note, the court stated it was admitted to demonstrate Ms. Zellat’s injuries before the accident. Ms. Zellat was questioned on cross examination about her use of OxyContin.  The court stated that the lower court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the questioning.

The appeals court affirmed the judgment in favor of Liberty Mutual, holding that they need not pay underinsured motorist benefits to Ms. Zellat.

At Needle Law, P.C., our auto accident attorneys can represent you in a legal claim following a collision or incident.  For a free, confidential consultation, contact our office at 570-344-1266.

More Blog Posts:

Pennsylvania Court Holds that Injured Plaintiff is Not Entitled to New Trial Based on Jury Decision Not to Award Future Medical Damages, Scranton Personal Injury Lawyer Blog, October 17, 2015

Pennsylvania Superior Court Finds Mention of “Insurance” During Auto Accident Lawsuit Not Necessarily Grounds for Mistrial, Scranton Personal Injury Lawyer Blog, July 27, 2015

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