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Carbon County Court Illustrates Proper Apportionment of Fault Amongst Settled & Non-Settled Defendants

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The Carbon County Court of Common Pleas recently denied a motion for a new trial, finding that the trial court did not err in allowing the names of defendants who settled prior to trial to remain on the verdict sheet.  In doing so, the court described the way in which juries may allocate liability amongst all parties involved in a lawsuit to determine which parties were wrongdoers—or “tortfeasors”—and thus liable for the plaintiff’s damages.    

Plaintiff originally sued a local hospital, a primary care physician, and physicians who subsequently treated her husband for a stroke before he died of a pulmonary embolism.  In her complaint, the plaintiff alleged that the physicians negligently treated her husband and that the hospital was vicariously liable for their actions.  Two of the physicians settled shortly before trial, leaving three physicians and the hospital to fight the plaintiff’s claims in court.

Because of the pretrial settlement, plaintiff moved to discontinue her suit against the settling defendants and to exclude all evidence that they were defendants.  She further moved to preclude the remaining defendants the opportunity to cross-examine her expert witnesses at trial regarding their findings as to the settling defendants.  The court denied her requests.  At the end of the two-week trial, the jury found in favor of the remaining defendants except for the hospital, which was granted a compulsory nonsuit.  Plaintiff moved for a new trial, arguing that the court erred by allowing the settling defendants’ names to remain on the jury sheet and allowing the defendants to cross-examine her medical experts as to the full scope of their opinion. 

In denying plaintiff’s request, Judge Roger N. Nanovic addressed both issues.  First, he explained that the remaining defendants were “entitled to have the settling defendants remain as parties in [the] action in order to establish their status as joint tortfeasors and, if found to be joint tortfeasors, to have the jury apportion or allocate liability among them” so the damages that the nonsettling defendants must pay would be proportionate to their share of the total liability to the plaintiff.  If liability were apportioned to the settling defendants, then the remaining defendants’ liability, if any, would be reduced by the amount equal to the settling defendants’ liability.   Accordingly, Judge Nanovic ruled that including the settling defendants’ names on the verdict sheet was “necessary for the jury to evaluate the respective fault of all tortfeasors alleged to have been negligent.”

Judge Nanovic also held that the remaining defendants were entitled to cross-examine plaintiff’s medical experts as to their opinions expressed in their reports, which included criticisms of the settling doctors.  Likewise, the jury was entitled to weigh that information while assessing how to apportion liability on all physicians originally sued.  In this case, Judge Nanovic noted, “the plaintiff’s expert testimony offered as to the nonsettling defendants ‘cast an equally damning light on the performance of every physician who had a hand in treating decedent.’”  Therefore, he ruled, excluding the medical experts’ opinions regarding the settling defendants would wrongly create the impression that the remaining defendants were solely responsible for the death of the plaintiff’s husband.  

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