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Drew v. Work

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

June 30, 2014

CHRISTOPHER DREW, Appellant
v.
ROBERT D. WORK, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF JOHN A. STUTTS, DECEASED, GRANGE MUTUAL CASUALTY COMPANY, AND ERIE INSURANCE EXCHANGE, Appellees

Page 325

Appeal from the Judgment Entered May 3, 2013 In the Court of Common Pleas of Elk County. Civil Division at No(s): 2010-545.

BEFORE: SHOGAN, OLSON and WECHT, JJ.

OPINION

Page 326

OLSON, J.:

Appellant, Christopher Drew, appeals from the judgment entered on May 3, 2013 in favor of Robert D. Work (" Work" ), administrator of the estate of John A. Stutts (" Stutts" ).[1] We vacate and remand.

Page 327

The factual and procedural background of this case is as follows. On September 19, 2008, Appellant and Stutts were involved in an accident on State Route 255 in Fox Township, Pennsylvania. The relevant segment of State Route 255 is a four-lane highway with two lanes traveling northbound and two lanes traveling southbound. Appellant pulled out of the Wal-Mart parking lot and began traveling southbound on Route 255. Stutts was slowly traveling southbound in the right lane looking for a salvage company. Appellant followed Stutts in the right lane until he switched lanes in an attempt to pass Stutts.

What occurred thereafter is disputed. Appellant testified that, when he was approximately three-quarters of the way past Stutts' vehicle, Stutts moved into the left lane of travel and collided with Appellant's vehicle. At his deposition, a transcript of which was read at trial,[2] Stutts testified that he was traveling in the left lane of travel when Appellant's " vehicle suddenly appeared to his left, cut him off, and hit the left front fender and bumper of his car." Trial Court Opinion, 9/17/13, at 4 (citation omitted). Terrance Fulton (" Fulton" ),[3] an independent eyewitness, was the only other person to testify as to the circumstances surrounding the accident. The trial court accurately summarized his testimony as follows:

Fulton testified that as he was driving north on [State Route] 255, he saw from a distance of approximately [one-]quarter of a mile away two vehicles driving toward him -- a van ultimately determined to be driven by [Appellant] and a car driven by Stutts. He observed [Appellant]'s van following the car in the right lane. According to Fulton, [Appellant]'s van moved into the left passing lane, after which the car in the right lane also moved left and cut the van off. The van swerved further left into the left northbound lane, but Fulton did not see the point of impact between the two vehicles -- only that the van veered sideways and hit the guardrail on the southbound side of [State Route] 255. While Fulton testified that the van did not go

Page 328

into the northbound lane prior to the left southbound lane encroachment by the car, he testified that after the car cut the van off, " for whatever reason, [Appellant] swerved into oncoming traffic. Now there was nobody there. The van got sideways on him. He just headed on right into the guardrails."

Trial Court Opinion, 9/17/13, at 5 (internal citations omitted).

On June 10, 2010, Appellant filed a complaint against Stutts in the Court of Common Pleas of Elk County. Prior to trial, Work was substituted as the administrator of Stutts' estate. On May 11, 2012, Appellant submitted proposed points for charge, which included proposed jury instructions on per se negligence. Jury selection was held on June 8, 2012 and trial commenced on June 13, 2012. On June 14, 2012, the second day of trial, Appellant submitted supplemental proposed points for charge which included a proposed jury instruction on the sudden emergency doctrine. On June 15, 2012, the trial court conducted a charging conference at which it denied Appellant's requests for jury instructions on per se negligence and the sudden emergency doctrine.

On June 15, 2012, the jury returned a verdict which found both Appellant and Stutts causally negligent for the accident. The jury found that Stutts' negligence was 40% responsible for the accident and Appellant's negligence was 60% responsible for the accident. Pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102 (barring recovery where the plaintiff's negligence exceeds the defendant's negligence in personal injury cases), Appellant was unable to recover damages from Stutts. On June 21, 2012, Appellant filed a post-trial motion pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 227.1. Appellant's post-trial motion alleged that the trial court erred by failing to charge the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine and per se negligence. The post-trial motion also alleged that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Stutts filed a post-trial motion on June 27, 2012. The trial court failed to enter an order disposing of the parties' post-trial motions, therefore, on May 3, 2013, Stutts filed a praecipe for judgment pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 227.4(1)(b) and judgment was entered that same day.[4] This timely appeal followed.[5]

Appellant presents three issues for our review:

1. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred in declining to charge the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine as requested by [Appellant] when the requested charge was both warranted by the evidence and essential to the jury's understanding of the proper standard by which to evaluate [Appellant's] conduct and determine whether his comparative negligence, if any, outweighed the causal negligence of [Stutts]?
2. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred in declining to charge the jury on [Appellant's] requested [p]oints for [c]harge on negligence per se and the sections of the Motor Vehicle Code requiring [Stutts] to

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keep his vehicle within a single lane and not move from that lane until the move could be made safely when the proposed charge was supported by the evidence and essential to the jury's understanding of [Stutts'] duty of care and the breach that created the sudden emergency for [Appellant]?
3. Whether the jury's verdict was against the weight of the 17. evidence?

Appellant's Brief at 3 (internal quotation marks omitted).

Appellant's first two issues challenge the trial court's decisions not to give specific jury instructions. As we have explained:

Under Pennsylvania law, our standard of review when considering the adequacy of jury instructions in a civil case is to determine whether the trial court committed a clear abuse of discretion or error of law controlling the outcome of the case. It is only when the charge as a whole is inadequate or not clear or has a tendency to mislead or confuse rather than clarify a material issue that error in a charge will be found to be a sufficient basis for the award of a new trial.
Further, a trial [court] has wide latitude in [its] choice of language when charging a jury, provided always that the court fully and ...

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