First Impressions: PA Supreme Court’s New Standard for Granting a New Trial Stemming from a Partially Erroneous Damage Award

In a matter of first impression, in Mader v. Duquesne Light Co., the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has articulated a new standard for determining whether a new trial should be granted for all damages or only on certain damages tainted by jury error.

In the 6-1 decision, the Court held that it is in the discretion of the trial court to award a new trial on all damages or only on certain damages. In doing so, however, the Court stressed the standard that the “trial court should discern whether the properly awarded damages in the first trial were ‘fairly determined,’ and, if so, whether they are sufficiently independent from, and are not ‘intertwined’ with, the erroneously determined damages.”

The Court rejected adopting a per se rule with respect to the types of damages to be considered at a new trial, noting that the decisions offered by the parties were “neither definitive, nor largely beneficial to resolving the issue” since the cases cited were divided on the issue. The Court concluded, that “at a minimum” the decisions cited by the parties “stand for the principle that there is no per se rule regarding the scope of damages at a new trial.”

This decision stems from a case where an Allegheny County jury awarded damages for medical expenses to a masonry contractor who suffered severe burns to both arms and feet and whose feet were subsequently amputated after being electrocuted. The jury did not award the masonry contractor any damages for pain and suffering. The Supreme Court’s decision affirmed the Superior Court holding that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding a new trial for all damages, instead of limiting the scope of the new trial to the reassessment of noneconomic damages. The Supreme Court found that the jury’s award of damages for medical expenses were “fairly determined” and were “not so intertwined with the noneconomic damages…as to require their being re-litigated as well.”

Justice Sally Mundy dissented. Mundy disagreed with the creation of a new standard arguing that it “unfairly limits the discretion of the trial court to considering the factors” outlined by the majority opinion. Mundy also did not believe that the trial court abused is discretion when it concluded that “there can be no confidence the jury rationally determined damages for…medical expenses given its irrational determination of damages overall.” Thus, Mundy maintained that the trial court did not “abuse its discretion in awarding a new trial on all damages.”

Ryan R. Corkery is a Partner in our Philadelphia office.