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April 2024 Docket Review

Posted by Corrie Woods | Apr 30, 2024 | 0 Comments

This month on SCOPAblog, the court issued 5 precedential opinions and 13 grants of allocatur.

On the opinion side, I'm most interested in Dwyer, in which the Court held that a trial court erroneously refused to award treble damages for the plaintiffs' UTPCPL claims based on the jury's award of punitive damages for the plaintiffs' common-law claims.  In the opinion, Justice Wecht cogently explains that the availability of treble damages serves different (if partially intertwined) purposes than, and was intended to supplement, common-law remedies -- i.e., treble damages are designed as generally remedial, whereas punitive damages are designed to deter -- and so trial courts considering whether to award treble damages should not consider, let alone find controlling, the jury's award of punitive damages.  Justice Brobson, in a concurring and dissenting opinion, suggested that the respective remedies' partially intertwined purposes should permit some consideration, but his view did not carry the day, at least in part because it did not have a fulsome response to the majority's further reasoning that treble damages were intended as supplemental to extant remedies.

The decision is interesting not so much for its holding as for its legal and practical effects.  Legally, the case provides a roadmap for future litigants arguing that statutory damages are their own creature, and, more broadly, that statutory remedies are meant to be supplemental to common-law ones.  Indeed, Pennsylvania's history of UTPCPL interpretation is marked by a somewhat ill-fitting analogy to common law fraud, and the appellate courts over the last ten years or so have begun to unwind it.  And there are certainly other areas of the civil law where the courts have been less than robust in their interpretation of legislatively authorized remedies.  Dwyer is the latest in a series of cases that shows the Court's overall trajectory in the civil law, which is, generally, an expansion of civil liability.  And factually, what Dwyer, and its legal effects, mean, is that consumers and their attorneys are likely to settle for, or recover, more, and more often, in the vast majority of consumer-protection cases.

On the allocatur side, the Court is on something of a roll.  In the criminal context, it has granted several cases that appear to involve challenges to long-frustrating problems in criminal practice.  For example, in Lewis, it appears poised to drill down on the longstanding problem of what constitutes a "high crime area" for purposes of the detention of criminal suspects.  By way of background, although the law generally requires reasonable, articulable, and specific suspicion that a particular person is engaged in criminal activity to warrant detaining him, the United States Supreme Court during the latter half of the 20th century effectively diluted this standard, holding that although flight from police alone is not sufficient reason to suspect that someone may be involved in crime, "unprovoked headlong flight" from police "in a high crime area" is.  Since then, the devil has been in the details.  In cases involving flight, police officers testify that they have done nothing to provoke flight (despite their presence being regarded as provocation to flight by many), that the defendant engaged in "headlong flight," and that virtually any area they are called to is a "high crime area" (despite there being virtually no foundation for that determination other than the officer's own anecdotal experience, or, worse, the officers' and society's prejudices).  And there is rarely any evidence to rebut the officers' contentions in this regard.  Practically, this means that leaving when police show up makes one subject to detention, usually a limited search, and questioning, and a two-tier justice system for people who live and are present in less affluent, and more diverse, communities.  The Court appears poised to scratch beyond the surface of the issue and perhaps reject what has become little more than a talisman and a license to search in poor and minority areas.  Similarly, the court in (Derrick) Walker and Smith will address longstanding problems in sexual assault cases, and in Shifflet will address a longstanding and quite-oft-repeated issue concerning the Commonwealth's use of alternative-rehabilitative dispositions as facts justifying increased sentences.  Although I have previously written that the Court's interest in the reassessment of unfair criminal procedural rules has waned, I would be happy for the Court to make a liar out of me.

And in the civil context, the court I'm interested in Tranter.  In recent years, depending on how one looks at it, the Court has either restored or liberalized the standards for venue, which effectively means that there will be less litigation about whether venue is proper, and more litigation about whether it is oppressive or vexatious.  The Court in Tranter is likely to give the bar and the bench guardrails for that litigation, which will likely impact countless cases going forward.

Precedential Opinions

Commonwealth v. Drayton, 83 MAP 2023 (Majority Opinion by McCaffery, J.) (holding that failure to object to a trial court's provision of written jury instructions does not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel per se)

City of Lancaster v. PUC, 107 MAP 2022 (Majority Opinion by Brobson, J.) (holding regulation of placement of gas meters regulated utility placement of gas meters, rather than delegated legislative or administrative power to choose location thereof, such that a municipality's challenge under non-delegation principles was meritless)

Kramer v. Nationwide Insurance, 103 MAP 2022 (Majority Opinion by Donohue, J.) (rejecting attempt to expand insurance policy providing coverage for "bodily injury" to include claims seeking recover for mental and emotional distress)

Dwyer v. Ameriprise Financial, 2 WAP 2023 (Majority Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding a trial court erroneously denied treble damages for statutory consumer-protection claims based on the fact that the jury had awarded punitive damages on common-law claims)

Ferraro v. Patterson-Erie, 1 WAP 2023 (Majority Opinion by Donohue, J.) (applying informal service of process rules in a coronavirus-pandemic related case)

Allocatur Grants

Schmidt v. Schmidt, 658 MAL 2023 (granting review to consider the Workers' Compensation Act's coverage of over-the-county dietary supplements including cannabinoid, or "CBD," oil)

Better Bets Ventures v. PGCB, 600 - 604 MAL 2023 (granting review to consider whether appellate courts must defer to the Gaming Control Board's determination that an applicant has sufficiently good character to be a gaming licensee)

Commonwealth v. (Derrick) Walker, 432 - 434 EAL 2023 (granting review to review the appropriate test for the consideration of the admission of prior-bad-acts evidence, as well as whether the admission of a rape-kit-report without testimony from its author violates the Confrontation Clause and/or the rule against hearsay)

Commonwealth v. Lewis, 252 EAL 2023 (granting review to consider what is necessary to establish that an area is a "high crime area," and a claim of forced abandonment)

Commonwealth v. (Harold) Walker, 277 WAL 2023 (granting review to consider the legality of a voir dire question stating that the testimony of a victim, standing alone, is sufficient to find a defendant guilty)

Commonwealth v. Smith, 234 - 235 EAL 2023 (granting review to consider the legality of precluding a voir dire question about whether prospective jurors had a fixed belief that children would not lie about being sexually abused and the scope of the communication element of the offense of unlawful contact with a minor)

Commonwealth v. Foster, 206 WAL 2023 (granting review to consider the Superior Court's reliance on a defendant's proximity to a "Shot Spotter" alert in affirming a determination of reasonable suspicion)

City of Phila. v. J.S., 7 EAL 2024 (granting review to consider whether the Sexual Abuse Exception to the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act applies to individuals who were adults at the time of their abuse)

Almusa v. State Bd. Medicine, 409 MAL 2023 (granting review to consider several statutory interpretation issues in a medical license-suspension matter)

Commonwealth v. Shifflett, 282 MAL 2023 (granting review to consider whether a defendant's prior acceptance of an alternative rehabilitative disposition must be found by the jury to constitute a basis for an increased sentence)

Tranter v. Z&D Tour, 367-381 EAL 2023 (granting review to consider the Superior Court's application of the doctrine of forum non conveniens)

Commonwealth v. Linton, 261 WAL 2023 (granting review to consider whether a bicyclist's obligation to take "reasonable efforts" to avoid preventing the normal flow of traffic requires him to leave the roadway)*

In the Int. of: B.W., et al, 23-27 & 44-48 MAL 2024 (granting review to consider the Superior Court's application of the clear and convincing evidence standard in a termination-of-parental-rights case)

*This author is counsel for the Petitioner, now Appellant, in this matter.

About the Author

Corrie Woods

Corrie is our primary litigator, and focuses his practice on appellate, criminal, and post-conviction cases. Corrie also authors the firm's blog, SCOPABlog, which is the only regularly updated blog providing comprehensive coverage of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's docket. Corrie became an a...


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