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The Hartford Insurance Group v. Kamara

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

February 10, 2017

THE HARTFORD INSURANCE GROUP ON BEHALF OF CHUNLI CHEN, Appellant
v.
KAFUMBA KAMARA, THRIFTY CAR RENTAL, AND RENTAL CAR FINANCE GROUP, Appellees

         Appeal from the Order of February 25, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Civil Division at No(s): No. 1534

          BEFORE: OLSON, SOLANO and FITZGERALD, [*] JJ.

          OPINION

          OLSON, J.

         Appellant, The Hartford Insurance Group ("Hartford") on behalf of Chunli Chen, appeals from the order entered on February 25, 2016, which sustained the preliminary objections filed by Kafumba Kamara, Thrifty Car Rental, and Rental Car Finance Group (hereinafter, collectively "the Defendants"). We respectfully vacate and remand.

         Appellant instituted the current suit on September 15, 2015, by filing a praecipe for a writ of summons. Within Appellant's later-filed complaint, Appellant declared, in the caption of the complaint, that the plaintiff was "The Hartford Insurance Group on behalf of Chunli Chen." Appellant's Complaint, 12/8/15, at Caption.

         As Appellant averred, on October 10, 2013, Chunli Chen (hereinafter "Chen") "was standing in the parking lot of Thrifty Car Rental, waiting to rent a car, when she was struck by a rental car operated by defendant, Kafumba Kamara, and owned by defendant, Thrifty Car Rental, and/or defendant, Rental Car Finance Group." Id. at ¶ 12 (some internal capitalization omitted). Appellant averred that the accident caused Chen extensive injuries and Appellant alleged that the Defendants were negligent in causing the accident. Id. at ¶¶ 18-23.

         Further, within Appellant's complaint, Appellant averred that, at the time of the accident, Chen "was in the employ of Reliance Sourcing, Inc." and that Hartford "has paid $59, 424.71 to date in medical and wage benefits to [] Chen pursuant to a Workers' Compensation insurance policy maintained by her employer, Reliance Sourcing, Inc." Id. at ¶¶ 8-9.

         Appellant's complaint contained two negligence counts and, in each count, Appellant claimed that the particular defendant was "liable to Plaintiff, [ ] Hartford, and to Chunli Chen for injuries caused to her by" the defendant. The complaint was then verified by "Jaime Young[;] Workers' Compensation Subrogation Specialist[;] The Hartford" and the verification declared that "[t]he averments and allegations of fact made in the foregoing civil complaint are true and correct to the best of [Jaime Young's] information and belief." Id. at Verification (some internal capitalization omitted).

         On January 26, 2015, the Defendants filed preliminary objections to Appellant's complaint. The Defendants' first preliminary objection was in the nature of a demurrer and claimed that the entire complaint must be dismissed because Hartford was "attempting to file suit to assert subrogation rights directly against the alleged third-party tortfeasors." The Defendants' Preliminary Objections, 1/26/16, at ¶ 5. The Defendants argued:

While Pennsylvania law does allow for a workers' compensation carrier to be subrogated to the rights of the employee, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held, based on long-standing precedent established by Pennsylvania's Superior Court[, ] that "the right of action against a third-party tortfeasor under Section 319 of the [Workers' Compensation Act] remains in the injured employee, and that the employer/insurer's right of subrogation under Section 319 must be achieved through a single action brought in the name of the injured employee or joined by the injured employee." Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. v. Domtar Paper Co., 113 A.3d 1230 (Pa. 2015).

         The Defendants' Preliminary Objections, 1/26/16, at ¶ 9.

         According to the Defendants, since Chen was the injured employee and since Chen neither assigned her cause of action to Hartford nor was a party to the lawsuit, the entire complaint must be dismissed. Id. at ¶¶ 13-16.

         Second, the Defendants claimed that the complaint must be stricken because Chen did not verify the complaint. The Defendants further claimed that the individual who did verify the complaint - an employee of Hartford named Jaime Young - "was not present at the scene of the alleged accident and has no first-hand knowledge of the alleged accident from which to allege the facts pleaded in [the] complaint." Id. at ¶ 20.

         Appellant responded to the preliminary objections and claimed that the Supreme Court's holding in Domtar Paper was inapplicable to the case at bar because "[i]n the Domtar [Paper] case, Liberty Mutual filed suit 'as subrogee of' [the injured employee, while, in the case at bar, ] Hartford [] captioned the suit 'on behalf of Chunli Chen' to show [that Hartford is] appropriately pursuing this action in the name of the injured employee." Appellant's Response, 2/15/16, at ¶¶ 11 and 14. Further, Appellant claimed that the verification in the complaint was proper because Jaime Young "has knowledge of the facts contained in the complaint through her work on [Chen's] workers' compensation claim." Id. at ¶ 18 (some internal capitalization omitted).

         On February 25, 2016, the trial court entered an order that sustained both of the Defendants' preliminary objections and dismissed Appellant's complaint with prejudice. Trial Court Order, 2/25/16, at 1. Within the trial court's later-filed opinion, the trial court reasoned that the case was controlled by our Supreme Court's opinion in Domtar Paper and that, in accordance with Domtar Paper, dismissal was proper because Hartford was attempting to bring an independent cause of action against third-party tortfeasors. As the trial court explained, "[u]nder Pennsylvania law, actions against a third-party tortfeasor must be brought by the injured employee; the workers' compensation insurance carrier has no independent cause of action against the tortfeasor under Section 319 of the Workers' Compensation Act." Trial Court Opinion, 6/23/15, at 4.

         Further, the trial court held that Appellant did not properly verify the complaint, as the complaint was not verified by Chen; rather, the complaint was verified by Jaime Young, a Worker's Compensation Specialist for Hartford. Id. at 6. The trial court held that this verification was improper because Jaime Young "was not present at the scene of the accident and did not have first-hand knowledge of the incident" and the verification "did not state the source of Young's information or the reason why the verification was not made by a party." Id. Finally, the trial court stated that it did not grant Appellant leave to amend the verification because Appellant "failed to assert a legally cognizable cause of action against [the] Defendants; thus, granting [Appellant] leave to attach a sufficient verification would have been futile." Id.

         Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal and now raises two issues to this Court:

1. Did the trial court err as a matter of law in dismissing [Appellant's] claim with prejudice when pursuant to Liberty Mutual Insurance Company v. Domtar Paper Co., 113 A.3d 1230 (Pa. 2015), [Hartford] captioned the suit "The Hartford Insurance Group on behalf of Chunli Chen" to show that the action was appropriately brought in the name of the injured employee[?]
2. Did the trial court err as a matter of law in dismissing [Appellant's] complaint for lack of a verification signed by use party plaintiff, Chunli Chen, when the attached verification was signed by a representative of [] Hartford with knowledge of the claim; or in the alternative, did the trial court err in dismissing the claim rather than ...

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