Appeal from the Order entered on September 9, 1985, in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Civil Division, at No. 5970 March 1981.
David C. Harrison, Philadelphia, for appellant.
Harry Lore, Philadelphia, for appellee.
Wieand, Beck and Johnson, JJ. Wieand, J., files a concurring statement.
[ 357 Pa. Super. Page 411]
Appellant Thomas R. Murphy ("Murphy") was employed by appellee Publicker Industries, Inc. ("Publicker") from September 1951 until his dismissal in April 1979. In March, 1981, Murphy instituted suit for wrongful dismissal against Publicker, alleging that Publicker dismissed him without cause and in breach of Murphy's alleged lifetime employment contract with Publicker. After a jury trial conducted before the Honorable Leon Katz, the jury returned a verdict for Murphy and awarded him $94,000 in damages. On September 9, 1985, Judge Katz granted Publicker's motion
[ 357 Pa. Super. Page 412]
for a new trial on the ground that the court's instructions to the jury had not accurately and completely reflected the law of Pennsylvania concerning lifetime employment contracts. This appeal followed.
The issues before us are whether jury instructions that equate the concepts of "lifetime" employment contracts and employment contracts for a "definite" period of time are in error and, if they are, whether that error is harmless.
We hold that a contract for employment for life does not, without more, constitute an enforceable contract for employment for a specific, definite duration and, therefore, instructions that direct the jury to equate these concepts are in error. We further hold that such error was sufficiently prejudicial to Publicker to justify the trial court's grant of a new trial. We affirm the order of the common pleas court.
Approximately three years after Murphy began work at Publicker, Publicker's New York district supervisor offered Murphy a promotion. Acceptance of the new position would require Murphy to move his young family to Philadelphia from the New York metropolitan area where they had recently purchased a home and had friends and family. Murphy alleges that the supervisor assured Murphy that if he accepted the new position, he "would be working for the company forever." Allegedly in reliance on this assurance, Murphy accepted the promotion and moved to Philadelphia where he continued in Publicker's employ until his dismissal in 1979.
Murphy contends that this course of events gave rise to an enforceable employment contract pursuant to which Publicker agreed to employ Murphy for life, presumably unless he gave them just cause to fire him by not performing in accordance with the requirements of his position. Although Publicker contends that they did have such cause to fire, the jury apparently believed Murphy's allegation that Publicker fired him without cause. However, Publicker further contends that even if there was no cause to fire, they nevertheless had the legal right to discharge Murphy at any
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time and for any or no reason because he was an at-will employee with no contract for employment for any definite period of time. Henry v. Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Co., 139 Pa. 289, 21 A. 157 (1891).
This case is another in a now long series of cases in which the courts of this Commonwealth have recently been called upon to award a discharged employee with no written employment contract relief based on a wider theory of what constitutes an enforceable agreement between an employer and an employee under which the employee has a right to continued employment. Darlington v. General Electric, 350 Pa. Super. ...