United States: PA. Court Nixes $38.5m Award In Work Shooting Suit

On July 18, 2017, a Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed a $38.5 million punitive damages award in a fatal workplace shooting case. See Wilson v. U.S. Sec. Assocs., 2017 PA Super 226. A three-judge panel held that the claim for punitive damages was improperly allowed because it was introduced outside the statute of limitations. 

The case arose out of a workplace shooting in 2010, that resulted in the death of Latonya Brown and Tanya Renee Wilson. The victims were shot by a disgruntled employee, Yvonne Hiller, after Ms. Hiller was suspended for making verbal threats against the victims. A security guard, employed by U.S. Security Associates, was instructed to escort Ms. Hiller to her car. Instead, Ms. Hiller walked to her vehicle unattended. Ms. Hiller went to her vehicle, grabbed a .357 revolver, and headed back to the office building. She threatened the guards to let her back into the building. After getting past the guards, Ms. Hiller located Ms. Wilson, Ms. Brown, and Bryant Dalton and blamed them for losing her job. She then shot them, killing Ms. Wilson and Ms. Brown and seriously injuring Mr. Dalton. 

The Victims’ estates filed complaints against U.S. Security Associates (“USSA”) alleging that USSA’s employees failed to follow protocol that would have required them to escort Hiller all the way to her car and ensure her departure from the premises. The cases were later consolidated. The Plaintiffs stipulated to dismiss the punitive damages claim in exchange for USSA’s withdrawal of their preliminary objections. The parties also agreed to strike the words “reckless, outrageous, intentional, and/or wanton” from the complaint. 

On October 31, 2014, the successor Attorney for the Appellees filed a Motion for Leave to Amend to reintroduce the punitive damages claim to the Complaint. The Judge did not rule on the motion until midway through the trial. The trial began on February 17, 2015, and the Plaintiffs’ Motion for Leave to Amend to reintroduce the punitive damages claim was granted midway through the trial – on February 23, 2015. The first jury awarded the families over $8 million dollars in compensatory damages but deadlocked on whether the two guards on duty had acted "outrageously” enough to support an award of punitive damages. A second trial began on March 23, 2015, regarding the punitive damages claim against USSA. The second jury returned a verdict of $38.5 million against USSA, making the total award to the estate $46 million. 

USSA appealed the decision, arguing that allowing the Appellees to reassert their claim for punitive damages after the statute of limitations had run was improper. The Appellees argued that the punitive damages claim is merely part of the ad damnum clause and incidental to the claim rather than a separate cause of action and, therefore, not subject to the statute of limitations. 

The Superior Court recognized that although Appellees had the right to reintroduce the punitive damages claim pursuant to the stipulation as punitive damages were removed “without prejudice,” the trial court erred in letting the Appellees do so after the statute of limitations had run. The Court noted that “an amendment…may not introduce a new cause of action after the statute of limitations has run.” The panel likened the parties stipulation “without prejudice” to a party who takes a voluntary nonsuit, stating that “it is well-settled that a party which takes a voluntary nonsuit even without prejudice must still re-file within the statute of limitations.” They found “no legal basis on which the strategic withdrawal of one significant cause of action, punitive damages, should be treated differently than [the] settled controlling authority treats the withdrawal of an entire lawsuit.”

This decision has caused Plaintiffs' bar some concern. Plaintiffs' bar is concerned that they will now be forced to file for punitive damages before there is enough evidence to support a claim. The Plaintiffs' bar is also concerned that the decision adds an additional time restraint regarding their claims. Specifically, they are concerned that they will either need to immediately seek punitive damages or wait until right before the statute of limitations runs out before seeking punitive damages.

However, this is a favorable decision for the defense because it upturns case law dating back over fifty-years holding that the right to punitive damages is an amplification of damages and not a separate cause of action. For example in Daley v. John Wanamaker, Inc., the Court specifically recognized that “[t]he right to punitive damages is a mere incident of a cause of action and is not the subject of an action in itself and a plaintiff may amend his complaint to include a prayer for punitive damages even though the statute of limitations would have then run on a new personal injury action.” 317 Pa. Super. 348, 351, 464 A.2d 355, 357 (1983) citing C.F. Schneider v. Chalfonte Builders, Inc., 11 Bucks 122 (1962). See also Hilbert v. Roth, 395 Pa. 270, 271, 149 A.2d 648, 649 (1959) (recognizing that the right to punitive damages is a mere incident to a cause of action - an element which the jury may consider in making its determination - and not the subject of an action in itself.). This general rule has been consistently applied throughout the years in the Commonwealth. As a result, the recent decision in Wilson alters the playing field in the Commonwealth as it pertains to punitive damages.

The estate has not yet appealed the decision, however, it is highly anticipated that the decision will be appealed.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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