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HAM v. GOUGE ET UX. (06/12/69)

decided: June 12, 1969.


Appeal from order of Court of Common Pleas of Chester County, Feb. T., 1964, No. 82, in case of Nathan Ham v. Hoy Gouge et al.


G. Clinton Fogwell, Jr., with him Lawrence A. Goldberg, and Reilly and Fogwell, for appellants.

Thomas M. Twardowski, with him Richard L. Cantor, and Lentz, Riley, Cantor, Kilgore & Massey, for appellee.

Wright, P. J., Watkins, Montgomery, Jacobs, Hoffman, Spaulding, and Cercone, JJ. Opinion by Cercone, J.

Author: Cercone

[ 214 Pa. Super. Page 424]

Plaintiff was injured on April 23, 1962 when gored by a bull on defendants' property located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Plaintiff filed a claim with the Workmen's Compensation Board to recover for his personal injuries. Defendants filed their answer denying the plaintiff was an employee at the time of the accident. Plaintiff thereupon withdrew his claim without determination being made by the Board of either the existing relationship between plaintiff and defendants or of the plaintiff's application for benefits. Plaintiff then filed a complaint in trespass against defendants and defendants filed an answer to this complaint, at which time they did not raise the defense of employer-employee relationship. At trial defendants moved to amend their answer in order to plead the existence of an employer-employee relationship between the parties. Plaintiff pleaded surprise because the issue had not been raised in the pleadings, but the court granted the motion to amend and also granted plaintiff's motion for withdrawal of a juror and continuance of the case. Prior to the second trial, defendants filed New Matter alleging an employer-employee relationship; plaintiff replied; defendants moved for summary judgment and the lower court denied summary judgment holding that defendants were estopped from asserting the defense of employer-employee

[ 214 Pa. Super. Page 425]

    relationship because it would be a denial of the position previously taken by defendants in the workmen's compensation proceedings. At the second trial, defendants' offer to cross-examine plaintiff on the relationship existing between the parties, and their offer to introduce evidence, including plaintiff's claim petition in workmen's compensation proceeding, and other evidence, all relating to the question of relationship, were denied by the trial court, and consequently, this evidence was excluded from the trial and from determination by the jury. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff in the sum of $6,315.00. Defendants' motion for a new trial was denied and thus this appeal.

The dispositive question is whether the learned lower court was correct in excluding evidence at the trial pertaining to employer-employee relationship on the ground that defendants were estopped from so doing by their answer filed in the workmen's compensation proceedings denying the relationship. The thrust of the learned lower court's approach to this case is predicated primarily on its belief that the principle of estoppel applies here. However, unless all the elements of estoppel are proved to be present in the transaction between the parties, the principle of estoppel is not pertinent to this litigation. In the opinion of this court all the essential ingredients of estoppel are not present. The lower court's finding that plaintiff's withdrawal from the workmen's compensation proceedings stemmed from reliance on defendants' answer in those proceedings is not based on fact or evidence. It is true that estoppel applies if we assume the truth of plaintiff's hypothesis that plaintiff relied on defendants' answer when he withdrew his claim. But, as that hypothesis is an assumed and not a proved fact, the doctrine of estoppel based thereon cannot govern. Both parties were equally familiar with the underlying facts of their relationships and it

[ 214 Pa. Super. Page 426]

    is unrealistic to hold that plaintiff relied on defendants' answer any more than on his own independent judgment. Defendants' answer in workmen's compensation proceedings did not contain statements of fact tending to establish defendants' position that plaintiff was not an employee, but rather set forth a conclusion of law to that effect. A mutual mistake as to law, knowledge of which is equally available to both parties, cannot raise an estoppel. In addition, being in equal position with defendants as to knowledge of the facts and circumstances of the relationship which existed between the parties, plaintiff, without more evidence than was produced in the workmen's compensation proceedings, cannot be considered to have been induced, misled, or to have relied on defendants' answer in the workmen's compensation proceedings when he withdrew his petition claim.

As was stated in Culbertson v. Cook, 308 Pa. 557, 565 (1932): ". . . '. . . the doctrine assumes a lack of knowledge by the party claiming the estoppel. In Hill v. Epley (citation omitted), we said, "If, therefore, the truth be known to both parties or if they have equal means of knowledge, there can be no estoppel." . . . Here, the only matter which perhaps was unknown to appellant is a matter of law . . . we must assume the law to have been known to all, and a mistake of that kind will not help either side.' . . ."

Plaintiff depends on several cases decided by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and by this court: Buehler v. Philadelphia & Reading Ry. Company, 280 Pa. 92 (1924); Kuhn v. Pennsylvania Railroad Company, 270 Pa. 474 (1921); Welser v. Ealer, 317 Pa. 182 (1935); Williams v. Baptist Church, 123 Pa. Superior Ct. 136 (1936). These cases are distinguishable from the instant case. In Buehler, the Supreme Court ...

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