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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Sedentary duty until re-evaluated after EMG. Please allow
position changes. [Follow-up appointment] 6/30/16 @ 3:15pm.
R.R. at 1385a.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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; 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.
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.
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
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
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
Hawbaker's Brief at 6-7.
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.
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
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 ...