PA Supreme Court Ruling Reshapes How Asbestos Liabilities Are Apportioned

March 9, 2020Alerts

A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision holds that, in strict liability asbestos cases, damages are now to be split per capita among defendants, while bankruptcy trusts may be included on the verdict sheet to bring more parties to the table. This ruling, in Roverano v. John Crane, reshapes approaches to asbestos litigation in the commonwealth and further weakens manufacturers’ defenses in this area.

About Roverano v. John Crane

In Roverano, husband and wife plaintiffs brought claims against multiple defendants alleging the husband’s asbestos exposure caused his lung cancer. Before trial, the remaining defendants sought to have Pennsylvania’s Fair Share Act applied to allocate each defendant’s liability based on the percentage of total harm to the plaintiffs. They also sought to include multiple bankruptcy trusts on the verdict sheet. The trial court rejected both efforts, and at trial the jury found in favor of the plaintiffs. The trial court then apportioned the judgment equally for the eight defendants found liable, so each defendant was assigned 1/8th of the jury’s total award regardless of the evidence presented at trial concerning each defendant’s role. Two of the defendants appealed, and the case ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court. At issue were the trial court’s two rulings to preclude allocation of liability on a percentage basis and to exclude bankruptcy trusts from the verdict sheet.

Impact of the Ruling

The Supreme Court acknowledged that the Fair Share Act applied to strict liability cases, but because the statute did not specifically delineate how a jury was to apportion liability among multiple defendants, the Court held that the statute failed to override or alter the common law requiring per capita apportionment. Though the Supreme Court’s ruling applies to all strict liability cases involving multiple defendants, it specifically addressed asbestos litigation by agreeing with and adopting plaintiffs’ experts’ opinion that disease resulting from asbestos inhalation is “incapable of being apportioned in a rational manner because the individual contributions to the plaintiff’s total dose of asbestos are impossible to determine.” Additionally, the Supreme Court ruled that bankruptcy trusts joined as parties and/or settling bankruptcy trusts that are non-parties could be included on the verdict sheet provided there are appropriate requests and proofs.

The Roverano opinion, available here, extends Pennsylvania’s continuing string of court decisions that erode certain defenses manufacturers may have sought to leverage against asbestos-related cases in the Commonwealth.

If you have questions about this case or the alert, please contact Michael Zukowski at 412.394.5550 or [email protected], Nathan Marketich at 412.394.5544 or [email protected] or any member of Fox Rothschild’s national Litigation Department.