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Don’t Like An Award From Compulsory Arbitration? You Must Appeal

Can a party to a case where a judgment has been entered in compulsory arbitration have that judgment modified without appealing? This is the underlying question in the recent matter heard by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, captioned as Blucas v. Agiovlasitis, 2018 Pa.Super. 25.

In Blucas, tenants brought suit against their former landlord for the return of their security deposit. The landlord, of course, claimed the leasehold had damages for which he incurred expenses and he needed compensation/reimbursement from the tenants.

The case was tracked into compulsory arbitration pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 7361. After a hearing before a panel of arbitrators, a judgment was entered awarding the tenants $10,000 and the landlord $1,450, for a net award to the tenants of $8,550.

Pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 1307 and established case law, the entry of an award following compulsory arbitration has the force and effect of a final judgment. The court contrasted an award flowing from compulsory arbitration with one following statutory or common law arbitration. Unlike an award from compulsory arbitration, a party must petition the trial court to confirm an award from statutory or common law arbitration 30 days or more following the date of the award. For an award from compulsory arbitration neither party must file a præcipe to enter judgment on the award.

In July 2016, an award and notice of the same was entered on the docket in this matter, and was final (unless appealed). A judgment on the award was entered in November 2016. Within less than two weeks following the entry of the judgment in Blucas, the landlord remitted a check to the tenants for the full amount of the judgment ($8,550). Pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 1307, a party must file an appeal within 30 days from when the award and notice are entered on the docket in order to further litigate the matter. No appeal was ever filed. Instead of appealing, the tenants, in April 2017, filed a motion for costs and prejudgment interest (motion) requesting a recalculation of the award.

The court reviewed the various case, statutory, and procedural laws applicable to the instant matter, and unequivocally concluded that the sole remedy for an adverse or unsatisfactory compulsory arbitration award is an appeal within 30 days from the award and notice. The only exception to the above the court could discern is Pa.R.C.P. 1307(d), which provides for a means to “mold” a previously entered award for obvious errors, in either arithmetic or language, that do not go to the substance and/or merits of the award.

The tenants’ motion did not address basic errors in arithmetic and language but, rather, asked the trial court to award them additional damages in prejudgment interest and costs. Inexplicably, and without citing support, the trial court granted the tenants’ motion, which led to the landlord’s appeal to Pennsylvania Superior Court, resulting in the decision, cited above, that is the subject of this article.

Superior Court noted that the motion did not comply with the law and procedure cited above.  The motion clearly is not an example of “molding.” More importantly, it was not filed within 30 days of the award.  The trial court was unclear as to precisely how it calculated the award and what the figures in the award exactly represented (e.g., interest and costs? security deposit? pet deposit? etc.). As a result, there is no way for Superior Court to even attempt to “mold” the award regarding prejudgment interest, even if it could. Consequently, as the tenants did not file an appeal of the compulsory arbitration award, the trial court was without authority to attempt to revisit the award with regard to prejudgment interest.

As always, it is absolutely critical for practitioners to be totally cognizant of the applicable deadlines and time periods mandated by law or procedure and act accordingly to ensure compliance with the same and opportunity to litigate a matter as fully as possible.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on March 19, 2018 and can be found here.

A Collection of Personal Injury Writings by James W. Cushing, Esquire

Over the course of my career, I have written extensively on a wide variety of personal injury legal principles.  These writings have been published in The Legal IntelligencerUpon Further Review, and The Pennsylvania Family Lawyer as well as posted onto my blog.  I have collected these articles and blog posts and have listed them below.  Thanks for reading!

Musings:

My Articles:

Local Ice Rink Tries to Put Law Suits on Ice

My nephew recently had a birthday and, because he is an avid ice hockey player, he chose to celebrate it at a local ice rink.  Before I get to the meat of this post let me say that I had not ice skated in at least ten years before that party and I was seriously out of practice!  By the end of the party I felt I was back to some semblance of respectability, but my back, ankles, and knees are clearly not as young as they once were.

Anyway, the ice rink facility the party was held at is very large and well equipped for such a party.  The facility is so large that there are two ice rinks separated by a common area for eating and lacing up one’s skates.  Next to one of the rinks are a series of smaller rooms where people gather for the parties that are held.  As one may expect from a kid’s party, much pizza, cake, and Coca-Cola are consumed in these rooms.

Part of the party process requires anyone intending to participate in ice skating to receive a sticker which identifies him/her as a guest of a party.  The sticker is a white paper with the name of the party on a piece of wax paper.  The person who receives the sticker peels off the sticker from the wax paper and puts the sticker on his or her shirt as identification on the ice rink.

All seemed rather typical to me for such a party until I noticed something peculiar.  While I was enjoying a slice of pizza, one of the kids at the party peeled off his sticker from its wax paper backing and threw the wax paper onto the table in front of me.  I glanced down at the wax paper and noticed that it was covered with text.  Curiosity got the best of me, so I picked up the wax paper and read all of the text written on it, which read as follows:

WAIVER OF LIABILITY

ASSUMPTION OF RISK:

I am aware that ice skating, hockey and/or broomball activities involve inherent risks dangers and hazards which can result in serious personal injury or death.  I am also aware that the ice skating rinks and arenas contain dangers that can cause serious injury or death.  I hereby freely agree to assume and accept all known and unknown risks of injury arising out of ice skating, hockey and/or broomball activities.  I recognize and acknowledge that risks of ice skating, hockey and/or broomball can be greatly reduced by: taking lessons, abiding by the Responsibility Code and using common sense.

RELEASE AND WAIVER OF CLAIMS AGREEMENT:

For allowing m e to participate in public skating, hockey and/or broomball activites at the [ice rink], I agree to the fullest extent permitted by law, as follows: 1) TO WAIVE ALL CLAIMS that I have or may have against the [ice rink] and its owners and affiliates, arising out of public skating, hockey and/or broomball.  2) TO RELEASE the [ice rink] and its owners and affiliates from all liability for any loss, damage, injury or expense that I (o my next of kin, parent, guardian estate) may suffer, arising out of ice skating, hockey and/or broomball activities from any cause whatsoever including negligence or breach of contract on the part of the [ice rink] in the operation, supervision, design or maintenance of its facility.

So, basically, on the back of the wax paper for the identification sticker was a rather detailed waiver which protects the ice rink from all liability for injuries sustained there.  When I saw this, I instantly knew I had to write a blog on it because this waiver seemed so ridiculous to me.

I find this waiver to be of dubious enforceability.  Waivers must be accepted knowingly.  The identification stickers are merely provided by the ice rink to the person in charge of the party who then distributes them to the people at the party.  No one at the ice rink indicated that a waiver of liability is written on the back of the stickers.  Furthermore, the waiver is written on what is ostensibly trash.  The people there had no idea that the back of the stickers had text on them, let alone something as vitally important as a waiver of liability.  Instead, the people at the party – as one may expect – simply peeled off the stickers from the wax paper and threw out the wax paper.  I would have never noticed it myself had the kid at my table not, by chance, tossed his trash in front of me.  In addition, the waiver of liability is received after the contract was formed and payment was made for the use of the ice rink.  So, no consideration was exchanged for the waiver.  A waiver cannot simply be thrust onto someone after the contract was formed and payment made.  Even if it could be argued that there was consideration for the waiver between the ice rink and the person who paid for the party, there was certainly no consideration between the ice rink and a guest of the party.

A waiver of this sort is basically an exculpatory clause.  When it comes to exculpatory clauses, they are to “be strictly construed with every intendment against the party seeking their protection.” Phillips Home Furnishings v. Continental Bank, 231 Pa. Super. 174 (1974) citing Kotwasinksi v. Rasner, 436 Pa. 32 (1969). Furthermore, an exculpatory clause will not be valid if there is a disproportionate bargaining power between the parties to the contract at issue. Id. citing Hennigsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., 161 A. 2d 69 (NJ, 1960).  In addition, an exculpatory clause that a Court is unwilling to enforce is where the terms of a contract are unwilling to be altered by its maker.  In other words, a contract where the other party (i.e.: not the drafter of the contract) “has no bargaining power and must accept [the] terms” presented to him and is “powerless to alter” them, with rejection of the contract as the only alternative to executing the contract.  There is no meeting of the minds in this sort of contract negotiation. Galligan v. Arovitch, 421 Pa. 301 (1966).  In addition to the relationship of the parties to a contract, the Court also analyzes whether a party to a contract were “aware of and understood the terms of the release before his agreement can be deemed a particularized expression of the intent to assume risk.” Wang v. Whitetail Mountain Resort, 933 A.2d 110 (Pa.Super., 2007) citing Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, 911 A.2d 946 (Pa.Super.2006).  Finally, “[i]n determining whether a releasing party had such awareness and understanding, we consider: 1) the release’s placement in the document; 2) the size of the release’s print; and, 3) whether the release is highlighted in some fashion.” Id.,citing Beck-Hummel v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., 902 A.2d 1266, 1269 (Pa.Super.2006)

Based on the above, I think it is pretty clear that the language located on the back of the sticker is problematic. The contract relationship is obviously imbalanced.  A person seeking admission to the ice rink has no choice but to accept the exculpatory clause else he cannot gain access.  Further, the exculpatory clause is printed on what amounts to a piece of trash.  The guest cannot bargain and negotiate with the person at the ice rink’s office about the terms of the clause and try to change them.  In fact the person at the office likely has no authority at all to act on the ice rink’s behalf in order to change or alter the language on the sticker even if he wanted to do it.  So, obviously, there is a “take-it-or-leave-it” aspect to the sticker.  In terms of whether the recipient of the sticker was aware of and understood the terms of the exculpatory clause, I think even the average observer can see that there is likely no awareness of this clause, let along comprehension, at the time of entry into the rink.  Who reads what is basically trash?  No one gets the language mentioned or explained by the person at the ice rink’s office.  I would guess that the person at the office has likely never read it either or knows what it means.  What non-lawyer knows what an exculpatory clause is or how it works and how it could effect him?  Remember, this is all in the context of a busy kids’ party and being handed a sticker for one’s shirt amid the hustle and bustle at an ice rink.  Who is taking the time to read the wax paper on the back of a sticker, let alone understand the technical legal jargon on it?

I wrote a similar post to this one a couple of summers ago about my trip to the Philadelphia Zoo.  The Zoo tries to do similar things as this ice rink, which is to sneak in an exculpatory clause on the back of an admission ticket after the ticket is purchased which means, therefore, there is no opportunity to read it at the time of purchase.  You can read more about that clause here.

So, suffice it to say, I think the inclusion of the exculpatory clause on the back of the ice rink’s identification sticker is pretty sneaky.  I do not think the clause is particularly enforceable and is of questionable legitimacy in contractual terms.

There’s No Business Like Snow Business

The winter of 2009–2010 saw the Philadelphia metro area get record breaking snowfall. Many feet of snow piled on the sidewalks, driveways, stoops, and porches of property owners all across the area made for many hours of shoveling, salting, and sweeping to ensure safe and clear pathways on which to walk. Although the Philadelphia area may never get six-plus feet of snow in one winter in the lifetimes of the readers of this article again, the area will certainly receive snow in varying amounts each winter. Given this, it is important for property owners to know their responsibilities regarding the removal of snow from their property and what they need to do to avoid civil liability.

There are two basic ways a property owner can be liable for the snow on his property: the first is a violation of City ordinance and the second is in a tort action. Obviously, both could be present in a single matter; however a violation of the City ordinance does not necessarily guarantee tort liability for the property owner, nor does a violation of a City ordinance guarantee tort liability.

The requirements of the Philadelphia City Code are pretty straightforward regarding property owners’ responsibility for the snow on their property. According to Philadelphia Code §10-720, a property owner must shovel a thirty inch (30”) wide path on their sidewalks within six (6) hours after the cessation of snow fall. The ordinance requires that the thirty inch (30”) wide path be thoroughly cleared of snow and ice. “Where the width of any pavement measured from the property line to the curb is less than 3 (three) feet, the path cleared may be only 12 inches in width. When the building in question is a multifamily dwelling the owner or his agent shall be responsible for compliance with the requirements of this section.” (quoting the above citation). Of course, when shoveling the snow, one may not dump the snow into the street; so doing is also a violation of this ordinance. If the City successfully tickets a property owner for a violation of §10-720, the property owner is liable to be fined between $50 and $300 per violation.

Whether one violates a City ordinance does not necessarily have any bearing on whether a property owner could be liable in tort to an individual who is injured due to the accumulation of snow and ice on his property. Like many issues sounding in tort, the standards by which liability is measured are somewhat flexible and based on common law determinations of what is and is not reasonable. Tort liability for snow and ice accumulation on one’s property falls into the somewhat nebulous and imprecise “hills and ridges” standard. Essentially, Pennsylvania tort law requires the snow and/or ice on one’s property to be in the form of “hills and ridges” before a property owner can be liable for damages suffered by someone falling on the snow and/or ice on his property. The basic rationale for such a standard, as the logic goes, is that a reasonable property owner will shovel and clear out his sidewalks within a reasonable amount of time. Of course, unlike the Philadelphia City Code, no specific amount of time is specified by the “hills and ridges” standard, it simply requires the snow and ice to be cleared away within a reasonable time. Naturally, this begs the question of how one is to determine what a reasonable amount of time to shovel snow is; this is where the “hills and ridges” analysis is applied. If the snow on a property owner’s sidewalks has been there for such a long period of time that it has developed hills and ridges, then it has been there long enough for the property owner to be liable if someone is injured attempting to walk on the ridged ice and snow. If the snow is smooth and fresh looking, then it is presumed that the snow is relatively newly fallen and, therefore, it is not reasonable to expect it to have been shoveled so quickly for liability to attach to the property owner. Based on this, it is the best practice for an attorney litigating an injury on snow on someone’s property to investigate the appearance of the snow and ice on which the injured person fell.

Clearly, then, while the standards for tort liability and a violation of the City ordinance certainly overlap, they are not exactly the same. Snow can certainly last more than six (6) hours after a snowfall and remain in smooth pristine condition. In other words, one could be in violation of the City ordinance for failing to shovel snow on one’s sidewalk, but not necessarily be liable for damages in tort if someone fell on that very same snow. That is primarily due to the fact that the City ordinance and the action in tort each exist for a slightly different purpose. The liability in a tort action is to ensure people take reasonable care of their property. Not every municipality has the same standards as Philadelphia, or even has standards at all, regarding when snow ought to be shoveled. The City ordinance is for the purpose of ensuring uniformity and safety on the City’s sidewalks, and perhaps for relieving the City of the responsibility of clearing them itself.

Although the winter of 2009–2010 has likely seen the last of the snow, when it returns in the future, it is important to ensure compliance with City ordinances and shoveling it within a reasonable time. Otherwise, it will be over the hills and ridges and through the woods to liability they go for property owners!

Originally published on April 7, 2010 in Upon Further Review and can be found here and on my website here.

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