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Brittain v. Hope Enterprises Foundation Inc.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

May 17, 2017

PATRICIA BRITTAIN A.K.A., PATRICIA MAINES, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF BARBARA ANN MAINES Appellant
v.
HOPE ENTERPRISES FOUNDATION INCORPORATED, AND/OR HOPE ENTERPRISE INC., AND/OR WILLIAM BIRT, AND/OR HEATHER PETERS AND/OR SELECTIVE INSURANCE COMPANY OF AMERICA Appellees PATRICIA BRITTAIN A.K.A., PATRICIA MAINES, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF BARBARA ANN MAINES Appellant
v.
HOPE ENTERPRISES FOUNDATION INCORPORATED, AND/OR HOPE ENTERPRISE INC., AND/OR WILLIAM BIRT, AND/OR HEATHER PETERS AND/OR SELECTIVE INSURANCE COMPANY OF AMERICA Appellees

         Appeal from the Order April 21, 2015 In the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County Civil Division at No: 10467-CV-2010

         Appeal from the Judgment Entered April 30, 2015 In the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County Civil Division at No: 10467-CV-2010

          BEFORE: PANELLA, J., STABILE, J., and FITZGERALD, J. [*]

          OPINION

          STABILE, J.

         In these consolidated appeals, Patricia Brittain, a.k.a. Patricia Maines ("Brittain" or "Appellant"), as Administrator of the Estate of Barbara Ann Maines, appeals from the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County entered April 21, 2015, finding that Brittain was not entitled to a new trial limited to a determination of punitive damages, [1] and from the judgment entered on April 30, 2015. Brittain argues that the trial court erred in failing to hold a new trial limited to the award of punitive damages assessed against Appellee, Hope Enterprises Incorporated ("Hope"), and in failing to calculate and include post-judgment interest for compensatory damages from the date of the jury's verdict. Appellees, Hope and William Birt ("Birt"), did not file cross-appeals. However, on July 27, 2015, they filed an "Emergency Application to Remand to the Trial Court for Hearing on Newly-Discovered Evidence Regarding Possible Fraud on the Court with Regard to Plaintiff's Wrongful Death Claim" ("Emergency Application"). After careful review, we remand for the trial court to decide the issues raised in the Emergency Application.

         By way of background, on October 15, 2012, a jury returned a verdict in this wrongful death and survival action[2] stemming from the death of 31-year old Barbara Ann Maines ("Barbara"), a resident of a Hope group home who suffered from cerebral palsy and was unable to speak or walk. Barbara was a passenger in a van operated by Hope employee Birt that collided with a vehicle operated by Appellee, Heather Peters ("Peters").[3] Barbara subsequently died from a lacerated liver that was not timely reported. The jury found Hope and Birt negligent and awarded Appellant, in her capacity as administrator of the Barbara's estate, a total of $3, 018, 628.86 in damages. The award consisted of $2, 018, 628.86 in wrongful death damages for medical bills, funeral expenses, and loss of services, to benefit Sharon Moyer-represented to be Barbara's mother, and $1, 000, 000 for survival damages to Barbara's estate. The jury also awarded $100, 000 in punitive damages against Hope only. After appeal to and remand from this Court, we directed the trial court to conduct proceedings to determine the amount of delay damages to which Appellant was entitled.

         On April 21, 2015, a hearing was held before the trial court at which time the court anticipated wrapping up pending matters to calculate delay damages in accord with our directive. N.T., Hearing, 4/21/15, at 2. Instead, Appellant's counsel argued that Appellant still was entitled to a new trial limited to the issue of punitive damages. The trial court disagreed, did not proceed to calculate delay damages, and certified for appeal the issue of whether Appellant was entitled to a new trial on delay damages as a controlling issue of law.

         Immediately after that hearing, Appellant's counsel apparently hand wrote a praecipe directing the prothonotary to enter judgment in favor of Brittain and Barbara in their individual capacities, despite the fact that the verdict was entered only in favor of the estate and Brittain as administrator of the estate. Id. at 64. Appellant's praecipe also requested that judgment be entered against two nonparties to this suit, Selective Insurance Company of America ("Selective") and the Hope Foundation, Inc. ("Hope Foundation"). N.T., Hearing, 4/28/15, at 3-4.

         Selective posted the appeal bond from the judgment entered in this case. Id. at 10-11. In accordance with Pa.R.A.P. 1734(c), liability against a surety may be enforced on application in the lower court. The record does not reflect that Appellant made any such application before entering judgment against Selective. It is not clear on what basis Appellant filed judgment against the Hope Foundation. Appellees' counsel filed motions to strike these judgments.

         On April 28, 2015, the trial court reconvened the hearing to entertain Appellees' motion to strike the judgments and to consider the assessment of delay damages. Id. at 2. At the hearing, Appellees represented that they were prepared to make payment on the judgment once it was properly entered. Id. at 17. Appellees asked to pay the judgment into court and requested a hearing regarding distribution to establish the proper parties to the case, in an effort to avoid future issues claiming they made payment to the wrong entities. Id. at 17-18. Appellant's counsel strenuously objected, pointing out to the court that only he and his clients would be payees on the check. Id. at 21-22. He explained he would put the money into his trust account and file appropriate paperwork in the county where the estate was raised and where a judge would decide distribution. Id. In response, the trial court explained it was obligated to determine the amount of delay damages under this Court's remand order. The court would then decide what to do with counsel's information. Id. at 25.

         After discussing delay damages, the trial court asked Appellees' counsel if there was a legitimate concern as to whether the money would be paid out wrongfully. Id. at 30. In response, counsel for Appellees presented the petition for probate and grant of letters filed in Columbia County, reflecting that Brittain was Barbara's sister, despite acknowledgement by Appellant's counsel during trial in Luzerne County that Brittain was Barbara's aunt. Id. at 30, Exhibit 2. Appellees' counsel then explained that Barbara's mother, Sharon Moyer, had renounced her right to administer Barbara's estate because she was not competent. Id. at 31. Barbara's siblings likewise renounced. Id. Counsel explained that although Sharon Moyer was not competent, there was no evidence that a legal guardian had been appointed for her. Id. Therefore, it was not clear how money from Barbara's estate would be distributed. Id. Counsel further explained that during trial Sharon Moyer was identified as Barbara's biological mother, yet was identified in the application for letters of administration as Barbara's sister. Id. at 34. Additionally, Marcella Rheppard and Leslie Gross were identified as Barbara's sisters in the application for letters of administration, yet they were her aunts. Id. Edward Maines, apparently Barbara's uncle, likewise was represented as her brother in the application for letters of administration. Id. The trial court found these revelations to be shocking. Id.

         In response, Appellant's counsel admitted there was an error in the application for letters of administration, but regardless, represented to the court that he would not distribute any money without an order from the Columbia County Court where Barbara's estate was opened. Id. at 35-36. It was counsel's opinion that the trial court had no jurisdiction to decide where the money went, and he would seek an order from the Columbia County Court directing distribution of Barbara's estate. Id. at 36.

         The trial court stated that no court in this Commonwealth would allow issuance of a check under circumstances where letters may have been fraudulently or improvidently granted. Id. at 37. It was the trial court's opinion that the Columbia County Court was the tribunal to review the propriety of Brittain's appointment as administrator and to direct disposition of the verdict proceeds. However, the court noted it would be careless for the trial court to simply have the money paid over to the administrator. Id. at 37, 40-41. Appellant's counsel strenuously objected once again to the trial court not ordering that the money be paid and represented that not a single cent of the money would be paid until there was a further order of court. Id. at 41-42. The trial court reiterated its concern with the estate, and noted that if Sharon Moyer is the only biological heir as mother of the decedent, she would be entitled to the entire wrongful death award. Id. at 44 (emphasis added). Nonetheless, the court indicated that with respect to an estate, a personal representative must act on its behalf and any judgment would have to be payable to the personal representative and not to the estate itself. Id. at 44-45.

         Following a recess, there were extensive discussions and arguments on delay damages and post-judgment interest. Id. at 45-60. The trial court then announced what it would order by way of judgment. First, the trial court struck the judgments entered against Selective and the Hope Foundation as having been inappropriately entered and having been entered while a motion for delay damages was outstanding. Id. at 63. The court likewise struck the individual judgments. Id. at 64. It then ordered that "judgment be entered in favor of Patricia Brittain, a.k.a. Patricia Maines, administrator of the estate of Barbara Ann Maines, plaintiff, and against Hope Enterprises, Inc. and William Birt, defendants, in the initial amount of $3, 018, 628.87." Id. at 65. The court added delay damages calculated at $157, 463.04, for a total judgment in favor of plaintiff and against the defendants in the amount of $3, 176, 091.90, plus interest and costs. Id. Further, the trial court ordered that "judgment be entered in favor of Patricia Brittain, a.k.a. Patricia Maines, administrator of the estate of Barbara Ann Maines, plaintiff, and against Hope Enterprises, Inc. in the amount of $100, 000 constituting the punitive damages award plus interest and costs as permitted by law."[4] Id. at 66. The court then indicated it knew of no authority that would allow the judgment to be paid into court, as this was not an interpleader action. Id. The court deferred to the jurisdiction of the Columbia County Court to review the matters that had been raised, and indicated there was nothing to prevent a judgment debtor from seeking emergency consideration of matters of great concern before the proper tribunal. Id. at 66-67.

         Appellees' counsel once again voiced his concern about making payment directly to plaintiffs after which the court encouraged counsel to include a stipulation with regard to payment of the judgment monies. Id. at 70. Ultimately, Appellant's counsel indicated that he would not agree to any stipulation and would file that day a writ of execution and would take proper appeals. Id. at 74. In response, Appellees' counsel requested, based upon the comments by Appellant's counsel, a brief stay of execution to resolve the matter. Id. at 75. Appellant's counsel reconfirmed that he would execute on the judgments as soon as he left court that day. Id. At that point, the trial court indicated it would enter its order that afternoon and would decide whether counsel had to come in for an emergency motion for stay. Id. at 76. The trial court explained it had tried to create a framework as an accommodation on how monies would be paid. However, if the parties were not able ...


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