Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Damages Apportionment in Asbestos Cancer Lawsuits

The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court recently heard arguments over how juries may apportion financial liability in asbestos cancer lawsuits as it relates to a state law passed in 2011 meant to provide clear guidance to courts in such matters. Despite the Pennsylvania Fair Share Act’s passage nearly a decade ago, Pennsylvania courts have inconsistently applied the laws as they relate to matters of strict liability, leaving it to the state’s highest court to sort out the appropriate application.

Under the Pennsylvania Fair Share Act, in matters of strict liability with multiple defendants (such as an asbestos cancer lawsuit) where juries find in favor of the plaintiff there must also be an apportionment of the liability to each negligent party, known as pro rata. Essentially, the law requires juries to prescribe a dollar amount each defendant owes separately to the plaintiff and other defendants are not responsible for the other’s apportionment of the judgement.

However, several of the state’s lower courts have inconsistently applied the 2011 version of the law as it pertains to mesothelioma cancer lawsuits, instead choosing to follow language from an earlier version of the same law. Under some courts’ interpretations, financial liability has been applied on a per capita basis, meaning each defendant pays an equal share of the damages awarded by the jury.

The review of the law’s application comes after a 2017 mesothelioma cancer lawsuit in which a Philadelphia jury handed down a $6.4 million verdict to a man who claims he developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure to the defendants’ asbestos-laden products. The judge in that case apportioned liability on a per capita basis amongst among the eight defendants determined to be tortfeasors, two of which actually remained in the case after the rest reached pretrial settlements with the plaintiff.

Those remaining defendants appealed the ruling, claiming that the judgement should have been apportioned on a pro rata basis with the jury making the determination which parties were more responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries. Furthermore, the defendants argued they should have been allowed to present evidence to the jury of the out of court settlements and those defendants’ potential liability.

Generally, juries do not hear evidence of settlements with other parties outside of court but the Pennsylvania Fair Share Act makes an exception for purposes of apportioning financial liability. Now, it will be left to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to decide for good whether the 2011 Fair Share Act applies to mesothelioma cancer lawsuits in which there are multiple defendants, some of which may be bankrupt or settle out of court.

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