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Carlini v. Glenn O. Hawbaker, INC.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

September 13, 2019

SUSAN CARLINI
v.
GLENN O. HAWBAKER, INC. Appellant SUSAN CARLINI Appellant
v.
GLENN O. HAWBAKER, INC.

          Appeal from the Judgment April 20, 2018 In the Court of Common Pleas of Centre County Civil Division at No(s):2016-3583

          BEFORE: LAZARUS, J., DUBOW, J., and NICHOLS, J.

          OPINION

          NICHOLS, J.

         Appellant/Cross-Appellee Glenn O. Hawbaker, Inc. (Hawbaker) and Appellee/Cross-Appellant Susan Carlini (Carlini) appeal from the judgment entered in favor of Carlini in her actions for wrongful discharge and invasion of privacy. Hawbaker challenges various evidentiary rulings and the amount of damages awarded by the jury. Carlini argues that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury that it could award non-economic compensatory damages for the wrongful discharge claim. We affirm the jury's verdict as to Hawbaker's liability for Carlini's wrongful discharge and invasion of privacy claims. We also affirm the compensatory damages awarded for the invasion of privacy claim and the economic damages awarded for the wrongful discharge claim. Nevertheless, we vacate the judgment and remand for a new trial limited to the issues of punitive damages and the non-economic damages for the wrongful discharge claim.

         The relevant facts and procedural history of this appeal are as follows. Hawbaker employed Carlini as a heavy equipment operator for twenty-four years. On April 7, 2016, Carlini suffered an on-the-job injury while clearing a downed tree from a roadway. Carlini sought workers' compensation benefits in June 2016.

         On June 15, 2016, Carlini attended an appointment with Dr. Christopher Varacallo, a physician on Hawbaker's workers' compensation panel. As a member of the panel, Dr. Varacallo was approved to see Hawbaker's employees who suffer on-the-job injuries. Dr. Varacallo diagnosed Carlini with sacroiliac joint pain, acute low back pain, acute left knee pain, and sacroiliitis. Dr. Varacallo approved Carlini for regular activity, and he permitted her to return to work, without restrictions, on June 16, 2016. Dr. Varacallo also ordered Carlini to return to his office for a follow-up appointment on June 30, 2016.

         On June 22, 2016, Hawbaker ordered Carlini to travel to Ohio to operate a "rock truck" at a construction site. Carlini had not operated a rock truck since suffering her injuries, and she informed her supervisor that she would be unable to operate the vehicle due to the pain from her injuries. Hawbaker sent Carlini home and warned her that it would consider her refusal to accept the assignment as an act of insubordination.

         Carlini immediately called Dr. Varacallo's office to inform him about her concerns over the work assignment. After the phone call, Dr. Varacallo electronically signed a work status note stating:

Work Restrictions:
The patient is permitted to engage in sedentary work activities, which means walking or standing only occasionally, lifting 10 pounds maximum and frequent lifting or carrying of objects such as small tools.
Comments:

Sedentary duty until re-evaluated after EMG. Please allow position changes. [Follow-up appointment] 6/30/16 @ 3:15pm.

R.R. at 1385a.[1]

         Also on June 22, 2016, Dr. Varacallo's office forwarded the new work status restriction to Ashlee Thompson, the medical case manager working with Hawbaker to coordinate Carlini's medical care for the workers' compensation claim. Thompson then informed Hawbaker about the work status restriction. Hawbaker personnel responded by asking Thompson to call Dr. Varacallo's office and request that Carlini's work status not be changed until after the doctor evaluated Carlini at the follow-up appointment.

         At approximately 3:00 p.m. that same day, Thompson contacted Dr. Varacallo's office to insist that the doctor conduct the follow-up appointment before changing Carlini's work status. The doctor's office acquiesced and changed Carlini's follow-up appointment to June 23, 2016 at 10:15 a.m. The doctor's office also voided the sedentary duty restriction pending the results of the follow-up appointment.

         After learning about the new appointment time, Hawbaker contacted Carlini and informed her that she needed to attend a meeting at Hawbaker's office at 8:00 a.m. the next morning, before going to the follow-up appointment. Carlini attended the 8:00 a.m. meeting, at which time Hawbaker terminated her for insubordination.

         On September 23, 2016, Carlini filed a complaint against Hawbaker, raising a wrongful discharge claim. The complaint alleged that Hawbaker fired Carlini in retaliation for exercising her workers' compensation rights. Carlini filed an amended complaint on March 6, 2017, which included an invasion of privacy claim. In the amended complaint, Carlini alleged that Hawbaker violated her privacy rights by contacting Dr. Varacallo to change the date of her follow-up appointment.[2]

         The parties subsequently filed pretrial motions in limine to address various evidentiary issues. Among other things, Hawbaker sought to bifurcate the trial and preclude evidence of its net worth, unless the jury determined that punitive damages were warranted. Carlini sought to prelude evidence of the compromise and release agreement, which she deemed irrelevant to her claims. The trial court denied Hawbaker's motion in limine and granted Carlini's motion in limine.

         Prior to trial, the parties also submitted proposed jury instructions. Carlini requested that the trial court instruct the jury about the awarding of non-economic damages for the wrongful discharge claim. Specifically, Carlini wanted the trial court to instruct the jury that if it found in her favor on the wrongful discharge claim, Carlini was entitled "to be compensated for the suffering, inconvenience, embarrassment and mental anguish she has endured and will endure as a result of her termination." R.R. at 760a. Hawbaker objected to Carlini's proposed jury instruction, and the trial court sustained Hawbaker's objection.

         The matter proceeded to a jury trial on December 18, 2017. On December 20, 2017, the jury found in favor of Carlini on both her wrongful discharge and invasion of privacy claims. In a special interrogatory, the jury determined that Carlini's filing of a workers' compensation claim was the factual cause of her firing. The jury also determined that Hawbaker's invasion of privacy was a factual cause of harm to Carlini. For the wrongful discharge claim, the jury awarded economic damages (lost wages and benefits) in the amount of $260, 095.68, and punitive damages in the amount of $1, 000, 000. For the invasion of privacy claim, the jury awarded no compensatory damages and punitive damages in the amount of $1, 000, 000.

         Both parties filed post-trial motions. Hawbaker's motion argued that the trial court erred by (1) refusing to grant bifurcation; (2) precluding evidence of the parties' compromise and release agreement; (3) admitting evidence of Hawbaker's net worth;[3] and (4) failing to mold the verdict to reflect the amount of the workers' compensation settlement. Hawbaker also claimed that the jury's award of $2, 260, 095.68 "was excessive and shocks the judicial conscience and is so palpably and shockingly offensive as to warrant a substantial remittitur." R.R. at 1634a. Hawbaker requested relief in the form of (1) a new trial; (2) remittitur; (3) an order molding the verdict; and (4) any "further and different relief as the [trial c]ourt deems just and proper." Id. at 1613a.

         Carlini's post-trial motion complained that the trial court failed to provide a jury instruction concerning non-economic damages incurred as a result of the wrongful discharge. Carlini also asserted that the jury interrogatories should have included a line for the jury to award non-economic damages for the wrongful discharge. Carlini concluded that she was "entitled to a new trial solely to determine the amount of non-economic damages caused by [Hawbaker's] wrongful discharge." Id. at 1747a.

         By opinion and order entered April 13, 2018, the trial court denied the parties' post-trial motions. On April 20, 2018, Carlini filed a praecipe for entry of judgment on the jury's verdict. Hawbaker timely filed a notice of appeal on May 17, 2018. On May 24, 2018, Carlini timely filed her notice of cross-appeal. The parties timely filed court-ordered Rule 1925(b) concise statements of errors complained of on appeal. The trial court did not file a responsive opinion. Instead, the trial court relied on its prior opinions disposing of the parties' pretrial and post-trial motions.

          At docket number 814 MDA 2018, Hawbaker raises six issues on appeal that we have reordered as follows:

1. Did the trial court commit reversible error by denying Hawbaker's in limine motion to bifurcate the trial (even on a limited basis) and to preclude Carlini from introducing evidence of Hawbaker's net worth unless and until the jury determined punitive damages were warranted?
2. Did the trial court commit reversible error by denying Hawbaker's post-trial request to mold the compensatory damages award to reflect those amounts paid to Carlini under her workers' compensation settlement?
3. Did the trial court commit reversible error by precluding Hawbaker from introducing evidence of a workers' compensation settlement entered into by the parties at trial after Carlini "opened the door?"
4. Did the trial court commit reversible error by overruling Hawbaker's objection at trial to the introduction of its financial condition through impermissible hearsay documents and a witness who lacked sufficient personal knowledge to establish a foundation?
5. Did the trial court commit reversible error by denying Hawbaker's request for post-trial relief from the jury's punitive damages award that shocks the conscience, is unconstitutionally excessive under federal law and Pennsylvania law, and could only be the result of passion and prejudice?
6. Did the trial court commit reversible error by denying Hawbaker's post-trial request for remittitur of the jury verdict based on a punitive damages award that shocks the conscience, is unconstitutionally excessive under federal law and Pennsylvania law, and could only be the result of passion and prejudice?

Hawbaker's Brief at 6-7.

         In its first issue, Hawbaker claims that evidence of its net worth "served no legitimate purpose to either party (or the jury) during the liability phase of trial." Id. at 32. Hawbaker asserts that evidence of its net worth "could only prejudice the jury into making a decision based on Hawbaker's ability to pay," and such evidence became relevant only after liability was established. Id. at 33. Hawbaker also complains that the court's failure to bifurcate "allow[ed] Carlini to introduce and discuss Hawbaker's financial condition whenever it served her best[, ] without any regard to its irrelevance or prejudicial impact." Id. Hawbaker emphasizes that Carlini's references to Hawbaker's net worth, particularly during opening statements, served "the sole purpose of anchoring the jury and inciting passion before Hawbaker could even begin to defend itself." Id. at 34. For these reasons, Hawbaker insists that the trial court should have granted its request to bifurcate the proceedings. Id. at 37.

         "The decision whether to bifurcate is entrusted to the sound discretion of the trial court, which is in the best position to evaluate the necessity for such measures. Thus, the appellate court must determine if the trial court's bifurcation decision is a reasonable exercise of its discretion in this respect." Castellani v. Scranton Times, L.P., 161 A.3d 285, 297 (Pa. Super. 2017) (citations and quotation marks omitted). "An abuse of discretion generally will not be found unless there is a showing of manifest unreasonableness, or partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill-will, or such lack of support as to be clearly erroneous." Krishnan v. Cutler Grp., Inc., 171 A.3d 856, 899 (Pa. Super. 2017) (citation omitted).

         "The court, in furtherance of convenience or to avoid prejudice, may, on its own motion or on motion of any party, order a separate trial of any cause of action, claim, or counterclaim, set-off, or cross-suit, or of any separate issue . . . ." Pa.R.C.P. 213(b). "Our Supreme Court has observed that bifurcation should be carefully and cautiously applied and be utilized only in a case and at a juncture where informed judgment impels the court to conclude that application of the rule will manifestly ...


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