Pennsylvania Court Upholds Damages Award with Goal of Effectuating Jury’s Intent and Language of Insurance Policy
In a recent opinion, the Pennsylvania Superior Court examined whether an award of damages in an injury lawsuit was properly calculated, considering the comparative fault of the plaintiff and the award of uninsured motorist benefits already received. The court looked at the plain language of the insurance contract, with the goal of carrying out the clear intent of the jury.
An accident occurred in Delaware County when Brian Pusey was attempting to cross Baltimore Pike on his bicycle, and a vehicle driven by Monique Rollerson collided with Brian’s bike. Joanne Pusey, the natural guardian of Brian Pusey, who was a child, filed a lawsuit to recover damages on his behalf..
Before trial, Ms. Rollerson’s insurer tendered the policy limits of $25,000 to Ms. Pusey. After trial, a jury returned a verdict in the total amount of $58,600 to Ms. Pusey, on behalf of Brian. The jury found that Brian was a factual cause of harm to himself, and it attributed 41% of the fault to Brian.
Ms. Rollerson then argued that the award should be reduced by Brian’s percentage of fault. While Ms. Pusey did not dispute that Ms. Rollerson should receive credit for the $25,000 liability limits tendered, she argued that the deduction for comparative negligence should apply after the credit for third-party recovery. The trial court found that the total award must be reduced by 41 percent, or $24,026. Prior to trial, Ms. Pusey received $25,000 from the third-party insurance carrier, and the total award must therefore be reduced by an additional $25,000. The jury verdict was modeled in favor of Ms. Pusey and against Allstate Insurance, in the total amount of $9,574.
On appeal, Ms. Pusey contended that the lower court erred when it modeled the verdict because the Allstate policy language was ambiguous. Specifically, the claim was that it was ambiguous as to how “net verdict” was to be determined. Ms. Pusey contended that Allstate owed her $19,824 because the verdict amount ($58,600) should have been reduced by the paid limit of the underinsured driver policy ($25,000) and then reduced by the comparative negligence, resulting in $33,600.
The court stated that interpreting a contract is a matter of law, with the goal of ascertaining the intent of the parties. A contract is ambiguous if it is capable of being understood in more than one sense, and it is obscure in meaning.
Here, the court stated the contract was not ambiguous. Instead, it was clear that Ms. Pusey was legally entitled to recover the amount according to the jury’s verdict. This amount was $58,600 from the underinsured driver, minus the comparative negligence (41%) amount of $34,574. Since Ms. Pusey received the policy limits of the underinsured driver policy for $25,000, she should receive that which she could not collect from the policy: $9,574. To reduce the verdict amount by the $25,000 policy limits already received, before reducing the verdict by the comparative negligence amount, would allow Ms. Pusey to collect more than she was legally entitled to collect. Furthermore, the court held that holding otherwise would frustrate the clear intent of the jury.
Here, the court held that the clear language of the contract was correctly interpreted by the trial court, and the verdict was modeled accordingly. The trial court did not abuse its direction, and therefore Ms. Pusey was not entitled to relief. The judgment was affirmed.