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The issue presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by this case was one of first impression: whether a woman’s use of opioids while pregnant, which results in a child born suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome(“NAS”), constitutes “child abuse.” In 2016, A.A.R. (“Mother”), was released from incarceration, after which she relapsed into drug addiction, using opioids (pain pills) and marijuana. Mother subsequently learned that she was pregnant with L.J.B. (“Child”). She sought treatment for her addiction, first through a methadone maintenance program and then with subutex. Mother again relapsed, and in mid-January 2017 she tested positive for opiates, benzodiazepines and marijuana, none of which were prescribed for her. Mother gave birth to Child on January 27, 2017; at the time of Child’s birth, Mother tested positive for marijuana and subutex. By the third day of life, Child began exhibiting symptoms of NAS, including tremors, excessive suck, increased muscle tone and loose stools, which doctors treated with morphine. Mother reportedly left Child in the hospital and did not consistently check on her or stay with her (despite the availability of a room for her to do so). Hospital personnel communicated all of this information to the Clinton County Children and Youth Social Services Agency (“CYS”), which ultimately took emergency custody of the child. The Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law (“CPSL”) defined “child abuse,” in relevant part, as “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly ... (1) [c]ausing bodily injury to a child through any recent act or failure to act,” or “(5) [c]reating a reasonable likelihood of bodily injury to a child through any recent act or failure to act.” The Supreme Court concluded,based on the relevant statutory language, that a mother cannot be found to be a perpetrator of child abuse against her newly born child for drug use while pregnant. The Court therefore reversed the decision of the Superior Court and remanded the matter for reinstatement of the trial court’s order. View "In the Interest of: L.J.B" on Justia Law

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The issue presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this appeal centered on whether producers of natural gas from certain vertical wells were subject to assessment of a yearly impact fee established by Chapter 23 of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act (“Act 13”). The vertical wells that at issue used the hydraulic fracturing process ("fracking") to extract natural gas through a vertical well bore from Marcellus Shale. Specifically, the issue centered on whether an impact fee would be assessed whenever a vertical well’s production exceeded an average of 90,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day for even one month of the year, or whether the well must exceed this production threshold in every month of the year, for the fee to be imposed. After careful review, the Supreme Court concluded that, under the relevant provisions of Act 13, the impact fee would be imposed on such wells if their production exceeds 90,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day for even one month of the year, as found by the Public Utility Commission (“PUC”). Therefore, the Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s order, which had reversed the PUC; the PUC's order was reinstated. View "PA Independent Oil & Gas Assoc. v. PUC" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether an exception to the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act applied ― the real property exception to governmental immunity ― and, in particular, whether the absence of padding on a gym wall, into which a student ran during gym class, causing injury, fell within the exception. In 2012, then-nine-year-old Jarrett Brewington ran in a relay race during gym class at Walter G. Smith Elementary School in Philadelphia. While Jarrett was running, he tripped and fell, causing him to propel into the wall at the end of the gym, hit and cut his head, and lose consciousness. No padding covered the gym wall, which was made of concrete. Jarrett was later diagnosed with a concussion, was absent from school for one to two months after the incident, and continued experiencing headaches and memory problems years later. In 2013, Jarrett’s mother, Syeta Brewington, brought an action against Walter G. Smith Elementary School and the School District of Philadelphia (collectively, the “School”), alleging Jarrett’s injuries occurred because of a defective and dangerous condition of the premises, namely, the concrete gym wall, and that the School was negligent in failing to install padded safety mats to cushion the wall. In response, the School filed, inter alia, a motion for summary judgment, raising the defense of governmental immunity, and claiming that the real property exception to governmental immunity under the Act did not apply. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found the lack of padding of a gym wall could constitute negligence in the care, custody, and control of real property, and, thus, fell within the Act’s real estate exception. View "Brewington v. Phila. Sch. Dist." on Justia Law

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William Rivera appealed the death sentence he received for the 1995 carjacking and murder of Tae Hung Kang. The Post-Conviction Relief court limited his appeal to one issue — whether penalty phase counsel was ineffective for failing to present mental health and life history mitigation evidence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated on numerous occasions that “no number of failed claims may collectively warrant relief i[f] they fail to do so individually.” However, the Court has also acknowledged that “‘if multiple instances of deficient performance are found, the assessment of prejudice properly may be premised upon cumulation.’” The Court found "the great majority" of appellant’s individual claims lacked merit, therefore the Court was satisfied appellant was not entitled to relief based on cumulative prejudice. Therefore, the PCR court properly dismissed appellant's petition for relief after having limited its hearing to one issue. View "Pennsylvania v. Rivera" on Justia Law

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Appellant the School District of Lower Merion challenged a Commonwealth Court decision to quash its appeal of the grant of an injunction. Appellees were residents and taxpayers of Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, who filed a multi-count, putative class action complaint against Appellant which asserted grievances about “proliferate spending and tax increases.” Appellees sought money damages in excess of $55,000,000 and the appointment of a trustee to undertake the responsibilities of the school board members. The amended complaint also contained a count seeking equitable relief, primarily in the form of court-supervised modifications of the procedures employed by the District’s administrators. Appellees submitted a “Petition for Injunctive Relief” seeking “immediate relief because without this [c]ourt’s intervention, the District will raise taxes and the bills for the same will go out July 1, 2016 to some 22,000 taxpayers.” Significantly, consistent with the prayer for immediate relief, the petition reflected criteria associated with a preliminary injunction, including an assertion of irreparable harm to the plaintiffs. In its written response, the District made clear -- consistent with the procedural posture of the case, the request for immediate relief, and the assertion of irreparable harm -- that it believed that Appellees were seeking a preliminary injunction, and the District proceeded to address Appellees’ petition on such terms. The dispute before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court centered on whether a post-trial motion was required, or whether the appellant was entitled to proceed with an interlocutory appeal as of right under Rule of Appellate Procedure 311(a)(4). The Supreme Court determined the common pleas court did not dispose of all claims for relief in its “Decision/Order”; therefore, “the decision” of the case was not rendered for purposes of Rule 227.1, and no post-trial motions were implicated under that rule. Rather, the District enjoyed the right to lodge an interlocutory appeal as of right under Rule of Appellate Procedure 311(a)(4). The Court reversed the Commonwealth Court's judgment holding to the contrary, and remanded this case for consideration of the merits of the District's interlocutory appeal filed as of right. View "Wolk v. Lower Merion SD" on Justia Law

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In this opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered a question left unanswered by its July 27, 2018 opinion. Specifically, the Court addressed what, if any, due process remedy was available to Petitioners, who were former and current priests in various Catholic Dioceses throughout Pennsylvania specifically condemned in Report 1 of the 40th Investigating Grand Jury (“Report 1”) as “predator priests,” to secure their constitutionally guaranteed right to reputation. The Court concluded that it could not employ any of the remedies offered by the parties, and, thus, the Court had to make permanent the redaction of Petitioners’ identifying information from Report 1, which was previously ordered as an interim measure, “as this is the only viable due process remedy we may now afford to Petitioners to protect their constitutional rights to reputation.” View "In Re: Fortieth Statewide Investigation Grand Jury" on Justia Law

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This appeal presented an issue of whether a workers’ compensation insurance carrier could bring a third-party action against an alleged tortfeasor on behalf of an injured employee to recoup the amount paid in workers’ compensation benefits where the employee did not independently sue the tortfeasor, did not join in the insurer’s action, and did not assign her cause of action to the insurer. In 2013, Chunli Chen was standing in the parking lot of Thrifty Rental Car when she was struck by a rental vehicle operated by Kafumba Kamara. When the accident occurred, Chen was in the course of her employment with Reliance Sourcing, Inc., which maintained workers’ compensation coverage through The Hartford Insurance Group (“Appellee” or “Insurer”). Insurer had paid $59,424.71 in medical and wage benefits to Chen pursuant to her employer’s workers’ compensation insurance policy. Chen did not seek to recover damages for her injuries by filing an action against Kamara and/or Thrifty Rental Car (collectively referred to herein as “Appellants” or “Tortfeasors”) and did not assign her cause of action against Tortfeasors to Insurer. In 2015, when the two-year statute of limitations was about to expire on Chen’s cause of action, Insurer sought to effectuate its subrogation right under Section 319 of the Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”) by filing a praecipe for a writ of summons against Tortfeasors. “Reaffirming the well-settled proposition that the right of action against the tortfeasor remains in the injured employee,” the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that, unless the injured employee assigns her cause of action or voluntarily joins the litigation as a party plaintiff, the insurer may not enforce its statutory right to subrogation by filing an action directly against the tortfeasor. Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the Superior Court’s judgment and reinstated that of the trial court, which sustained the preliminary objections filed by the tortfeasor and dismissed the insurer’s complaint with prejudice. View "Hartford Ins. Grp. v. Kamara" on Justia Law

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Appellant James Williams appealed a Court of Common Pleas order dismissing his timely first petition for post-conviction relief. In 1995, Appellant, together with four co-defendants, planned to rob Richard White, a drug dealer they believed to possess significant amounts of cash. During the commission of the robbery outside White’s home, Appellant shot White three times with a MAC 10 automatic weapon. White died from his wounds. Acting pro se, Appellant was convicted by jury of first-degree murder, robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery, for which Appellant was sentenced to death. On appeal, Appellant again proceeded pro se with access to new standby counsel. For post-conviction relief proceedings, the court appointed counsel to represent Appellant. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded after review, Appellant did not present a meritorious issue eligible for relief under the PCRA, and affirmed dismissal of Appellant’s petition for relief. View "Pennsylvania v. Williams" on Justia Law

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Appellee Tex Ortiz was the single father of a two-and-one-half year-old daughter, J.O., with whom he resided. n Allegheny County. In December 2015, the child’s maternal grandmother secured interim primary legal and physical custody of J.O. in a judicial proceeding at which Appellee failed to appear. The grandmother and others made various attempts to implement the custody order, but initially neither Appellee nor J.O. could be located. Appellee apparently took various measures to conceal his and J.O’s whereabouts, and he was eventually located where he surrendered the child to authorities and was arrested. Appellee was charged with various offenses, and convicted of interference with custody of children (“ICC”), a third-degree felony, and kidnapping of a minor under Section 2901(a.1)(2) of the Crimes Code. Throughout the proceedings, Appellee maintained that ICC, committed by a biological parent, could not serve as a predicate felony for purposes of kidnapping of a minor under Section 2901(a.1)(2). Appellee relied substantially upon Commonwealth v. Barfield, 768 A.2d 343 (Pa. Super. 2001). The trial court rejected his argument, intermixing into its explanation a classification of kidnapping with which Appellee was not charged. On appeal, the superior court reversed, relying substantially upon the Barfield decision, recognizing that intermediate-court decisions subsequent to Barfield had determined that a parent could be validly convicted of kidnapping of a minor. According to the superior court, however, where the intention of a defendant-parent is solely to retain custody and/or, correspondingly, reflects a desire to maintain an existing bond with a child, kidnapping of a minor will not lie. Ultimately, the intermediate court determined that ICC cannot serve as a predicate offense, under Section 2901(a.1)(2), where the defendant is the biological parent of the child addressed by the relevant custody order. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the superior Court and affirmed its judgment. View "Pennsylvania v. Ortiz" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review in this matter to determine whether an employer has a legal duty to use reasonable care to safeguard its employees’ sensitive personal information that the employer stores on an internet-accessible computer system. Barbara Dittman, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated (collectively, Employees), filed the operative class action complaint in this matter against UPMC d/b/a the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and UPMC McKeesport (collectively, UPMC), alleging that a data breach had occurred through which the personal and financial information, including names, birth dates, social security numbers, addresses, tax forms, and bank account information of all 62,000 UPMC employees and former employees was accessed and stolen from UPMC’s computer systems. Employees further alleged that the stolen data, which consisted of information UPMC required Employees to provide as a condition of their employment, was used to file fraudulent tax returns on behalf of the victimized Employees, resulting in actual damages. Employees asserted a negligence claim and breach of implied contract claim against UPMC. The Supreme Court held an employer has a legal duty to exercise reasonable care to safeguard its employees’ sensitive personal information stored by the employer on an internet- accessible computer system. Furthermore, the Court held that, under Pennsylvania’s economic loss doctrine, recovery for purely pecuniary damages is permissible under a negligence theory provided that the plaintiff can establish the defendant’s breach of a legal duty arising under common law that is independent of any duty assumed pursuant to contract. As the Superior Court came to the opposite conclusions, the Supreme Court vacated its judgment. View "Dittman v. UPMC" on Justia Law