Read Before You Sign! (And Consult An Attorney)

The recent case of Wakeley v. M.J. Brunner, Inc., PA Superior Court, No. 392 (April 19, 2016) is another harsh example of what can happen to people who sign legal documents without understanding what they mean.

The plaintiff, Ms. Wakeley, was happily employed at her job in Dallas, TX when a corporate recruiter contacted her regarding a position with the defendant, M.J. Brunner, in Pittsburgh, PA.  After a series of interviews, M.J. Brunner offered Ms. Wakeley the position, but then revoked the offer before Ms. Wakeley accepted citing a change in plans.   This should have been a red flag for Ms. Wakeley.  However, a short while later, the Brunner company called again and told Ms. Wakeley they had an executive taking a maternity leave.  They offered her the temporary position with slightly more attractive compensation than the original offer and the promise that there would be another similar permanent position for her when the executive returned from maternity leave.  Ms. Wakeley accepted the offer, moved her family from Dallas to the Pittsburgh area, and began working for M.J. Brunner.  When she started her new job, she signed a contract which included a standard “at-will employment’ clause.  For anyone not familiar with “at-will employment,” it means either the employer or the employee can terminate the employment relationship “at will” at any time for any reason or even no reason at all.

Ms. Wakeley’s tenure at M.J. Brunner, Inc. was short-lived.  Her superiors criticized her work performance and fired her four days before the incumbent executive returned from maternity leave to resume her position.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Wakeley brought a lawsuit against M.J. Brunner.  She argued she should not be considered an “at-will” employee because she suffered the additional hardship of relocating across the country.  She also claimed M.J. Brunner never intended to offer her a permanent position and fraudulently lured her to leave her job in Dallas just to cover the executive’s maternity leave.  However, the court held that the language in Ms. Wakeley’s contract was “clear and dispositive.”  She could not claim to be anything other than an “at will” employee when she signed a contract including the “at will” language and clearly identifying the employer’s  right to end her employment at any time for any reason.  The contract also stated that no M.J. Brunner employee had the authority to make any oral statement to the contrary.  The court held the contract language controlled despite what M.J. Brunner representatives may have said orally to her prior to signing the contract.  The court presumed Ms. Wakeley had read the contract and understood its terms.

Whether you are presented with a contract upon starting your employment or a severance agreement when you leave, if you sign the agreement without seeking legal counsel, you do so at your own peril.  Frankly, this advice is good advice for anyone given a legal document to sign.  Severance agreements may contain non-competition clauses that can prevent an employee from accepting a job offer from a new employer.  Business contracts may include many burdensome clauses that limit your legal rights and may even compel you to bring your lawsuit in another state.  In short, if you sign a legal contract without seeking legal advice, you may find yourself in Pittsburgh without a paddle.

 

Bucks County Jury Awards $362,015 To Gunshot Victim

On February 18, 2016, a Bucks County jury awarded Steven Vickers of Morrisville $362,015 due to injuries suffered after he was accidentally shot by his friend, Charles Byle, III, of Levittown. The verdict followed a three day trial in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas in Doylestown. Yardley attorney Scott Fegley represented the plaintiff Vickers.

“The verdict was fair,” Fegley said. “The jury acknowledged the severity of the injury even though Mr. Vickers made a remarkable recovery in a relatively short period of time and is not restricted by his injuries today.”

Vickers, 26, was at Byle’s home on November 8, 2013, to help him clean out his garage. At the end of the day, Vickers walked into Byle’s bedroom to tell him he was leaving. Byle, holding a .357 Magnum revolver, pointed it at Vickers and pulled the trigger believing the gun was unloaded, but the gun discharged. The bullet passed through Vickers’ right bicep and into his chest cavity where it lodged in the 5th thoracic vertebrae of his spine.

Byle applied a tourniquet to Vickers’ arm and drove him to Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol. Vickers was stabilized and airlifted to Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia where he underwent several surgeries to stop the bleeding and re-inflate his right lung. The bullet fractured a rib and punctured Vickers’ right lung, ending up near the descending thoracic aorta. It was too close to this major artery to be safely removed.

After being hospitalized at Temple for seven days, Vickers was discharged but was admitted to St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, PA a few days later because fluid filled his chest cavity. Vickers remained in the hospital another nine days.

Vickers sued Byle in 2013 on claims of assault and battery, recklessness and negligence. Byle agreed he was liable for the injuries and the parties also agreed Byle would pay not less than $81,000 to no more than $420,000 regardless of the jury’s verdict. The jury decided the issues of causation and damages.

The jury awarded Vickers damages of $67,015 for past medical expenses; $200,000 for pain and suffering; $50,000 for loss of life’s pleasures, $5,000 for disfigurement, and $45,000 for future medical expenses resulting in the $362,015 verdict. Vickers’ estimates of his future medical expenses were hotly contested during the trial by the defense attorney, R. Anthony Michetti, of Doylestown.

Although Vickers has continuing pain in his right arm and back, he is not restricted in his activities and has been reluctant to seek further medical attention. “I think the jury recognized he should have some follow-up evaluation over the course of his life for his injuries,” Fegley said, “although the possibility of Steve developing more severe conditions later in life will always be there.”

“As a gun owner myself, I know how important it is to handle firearms safely. They are not toys and are never to be pointed at anyone except in the extreme situation of self-defense. But Steve was Byle’s friend, not an intruder. This was a near tragedy that could easily have been avoided.”

Scott Fegley is an attorney based in Yardley, Pennsylvania, who helps clients in personal injury, employment and business law matters. He’s licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. His website is www.fegleylaw.com.

Why the Only Thing You Should Worry About After an Automobile Accident is Your Health.

Serious motor vehicle accidents occur on a daily basis across the United States. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nationwide in 2012:

  • More than 2.5 million Americans sought treatment in hospital emergency rooms due to injuries caused in motor vehicle accidents, and
  • Nearly 200,000 of them were hospitalized.

The CDC estimates that vehicle accidents result in:

  • Americans spending over a million days in the hospital each year,
  • At a cost of $18 billion dollars (in 2012),
  • With a lifetime economic cost to crash victims of $33 billion.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that in 2013 nationwide 32,719 people died in vehicle accidents while:

Negligent operation is the single biggest factor leading to motor vehicle accidents. Today, with smart phones, texting, even onboard computer displays for everything from phone calls to music selection, there are more causes for distraction and driver inattentiveness than ever.  The economic costs to an injured person and his or her family can be staggering when job loss and loss of future earning capacity are compounded with medical expenses.  Then there is always the difficult-to-quantify component of pain and suffering.

Prompt legal representation is essential after an accident occurs for several reasons.  First and foremost, it is crucial to collect and preserve evidence to demonstrate the cause of the accident.  Accident scenes can change within hours due to weather conditions or other vehicular traffic.  While you or your family member may be hospitalized and healing, critical physical evidence may be lost.  An attorney can accomplish the following:

  • Photograph the accident scene and involved vehicles
  • Collect and preserve physical evidence
  • Obtain police investigation reports
  • Obtain witness statements
  • Contact insurance companies and deal with them for you

Even if the other driver’s liability is clear, only a qualified personal injury attorney will be able to sort through the complicated insurance coverage issues including possible Medicare or Workers Compensation liens, tort threshold selection, and the steps to take if the driver responsible for causing the accident does not have enough insurance, or has none at all.

While most states afford injured persons two years from the date of the accident in which to file a lawsuit, your attorney should be working from the outset to gather records and build your case for compensation.  This may include hiring experts to analyze the cause of the accident and quantify economic losses, contacting physicians and other healthcare providers to establish the severity of your injuries, and communicating with your employer to obtain wage loss data.  In short, there is much work for the attorney to accomplish before a lawsuit is filed.   If the other party’s responsibility for the accident is clear, it may be possible to settle the case without having to file a lawsuit.  However, each case is different and an attorney’s legal expertise is necessary to make the decisions to protect your rights and prepare your case to receive the greatest possible compensation.

Protect your rights by calling our office so we can help you now.  Contact us at (215) 493-8287 or by emailing Scott Fegley at scott@fegleylaw.com.

Bicyclists at Risk

Bicyclists Can Be At Risk On Bucks County Roads

Bicycling the roads of Bucks County is a popular way to see the local sites and stay fit at the same time. Though bicycling is excellent exercise and a great way to experience Bucks County, our narrow roads are often poorly maintained and at times heavy with traffic. It should come as no surprise that an afternoon ride can become a dangerous activity.

  • In August 2015, a Washington Crossing resident was arrested after an accident that left a bicyclist riding on scenic River Road seriously injured, reports the Intelligencer.
  • A bicyclist was injured in an accident in Yardley borough in May. The driver of the truck that hit him was arrested for drunk driving, according to Bucks Local News.
  • In 2014, an accident left a 73 year old bicyclist dead in Yardley. He was riding on North Delaware Avenue when he was hit by a car, reports the Courier Times.

Nationwide the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates,

  • Over 900 bicyclists were killed, and bicycle related injuries resulted in about 494,000 emergency department visits in 2013.
  • Fatal and non-fatal accident bicycling injuries occurring in 2010 resulted in lifetime medical costs and productivity losses of $10 billion.

The CDC states those aged 15 to 29 and 45 years and older have the highest bicycle fatality rates with males being far more likely to be killed or injured on bicycles than are females. Head injuries occur in 22% to 47% of injured bicyclists and are most often caused by collisions with motor vehicles, according to an article published in American Family Physician. These head injuries account for more than 60% of bicycle-related deaths and most bicycle-related long-term disabilities.

In Pennsylvania, bicyclists have as much a right to use the roads (but not highways) as cars or trucks. Under Pennsylvania law, drivers are required to keep a four foot distance between their vehicles and a bicyclist and are allowed go into an oncoming lane (if it’s safe) in order to provide that distance and pass in areas where passing is otherwise not allowed. However, the best advice for cyclists is to take as many safety precautions as possible. Where available, cyclists should ride bike paths and trails and avoid heavily traveled roads.  Cyclists should always wear helmets and make themselves visible to drivers with lights and/or bright clothing.

While bicycling offers many benefits to riders, an accident can not only put a premature end to what should have been a great day of riding but can result in serious injuries and lifelong disabilities. If you or a loved one are injured in a bicycle accident, contact our office as soon as possible for the legal help you’ll need to recover for your injuries.

A Primer On Unemployment Claims For Employees

You lost your job and your employer has threatened to fight your claim for unemployment benefits.  Now what?  Losing your job is bad enough without the added uncertainty of being denied the limited income unemployment compensation provides.  Knowing your rights and the process to follow will help you collect.

Filing Your Claim

Today, most claims begin online.  Visit www.uc.pa.gov for initial claim filing instructions and for biweekly filing thereafter.  Be sure to answer the online questionnaire truthfully and completely.  Intentionally false or misleading answers may not only result in termination of benefits, but may result in action to recover benefits already paid and penalties.

Notice of Financial Determination

After filing a claim, you will receive a Notice of Financial Determination which reflects how much your employer(s) reported you earned during your “base year.”  A “base year” is the first four quarters of the last five full quarters prior to the application for benefits.  For example, if you filed your claim on May 1, 2015, your base year would be from January 1, 2014, through December 31, 2014.  Even though May 1st is in the second quarter of 2015, it is not a full quarter.

It is very important to review your Notice of Financial Determination carefully to compare the income your employers reported to what you believe you earned.  If your employers underreported your wages, it may affect the amount of benefits you receive.  An employee must earn sufficient wages and credit weeks during the base year in order to be eligible for unemployment benefits.  If you believe the Notice of Determination is not accurate, you must file an appeal by the date on the Notice. Failing to appeal in a timely manner may cost you your right to contest the reported earnings and financial eligibility for unemployment benefits.

Notice of Determination

Even if you are financially eligible for benefits, your benefits may be denied for other reasons.  At the time you file your claim, the employer is also notified and given an opportunity to submit information regarding the circumstances of your separation. After reviewing your claim and the employer’s response, the unemployment service center will mail an initial Notice of Determination to both parties.  The Notice of Determination will state whether benefits have been granted or denied and the reasons for the determination.

In general, there are only two reasons why you can be denied unemployment benefits:  (1) you quit, or (2) you engaged in willful misconduct.  If you quit, you had better have a darn good reason for doing so if you expect to receive benefits.  The law sets the bar high for the employee and requires “necessitous and compelling” circumstances to justify quitting.  These may include your employer’s failure to pay you in a timely manner, a significant change in work hours or other working conditions, or a spouse’s job relocation.  Employer or co-worker harassment or mistreatment may justify quitting, but only if it is severe and you have first attempted to address the issue with the employer.  “Necessitous and compelling” means what it says.  The circumstances must be so bad, any reasonable person in your position would quit also.

For willful misconduct, the law sets the bar high for the employer.  The employer must prove that you were aware of a rule or policy of the employer and deliberately violated it.  In most cases, the employer must establish the employee’s awareness through evidence of a written rule or policy and written acknowledgement of receipt of the rule or policy from the employee.

I can best explain the willful misconduct standard with an example.  I represented a casino employee who was in charge of supervising dealers at six card tables.  One evening, a dealer improperly paid out to bettors on several hands resulting in the casino losing thousands of dollars.  The casino fired both the dealer and the supervisor.  Curiously, the casino contested only the supervisor’s claim for unemployment benefits on grounds of willful misconduct.  The initial written Notice of Determination denied benefits.  The client sought my help and we appealed.  At the hearing, the casino produced evidence of a written policy my client had received requiring table supervisors to assure correct payouts.  However, the casino did not produce evidence that my client deliberately violated the rule.  There was no evidence of collusion between my client, the dealer or the bettor.  My client had simply become distracted and missed the dealer’s error.  The unemployment referee found in favor of my client and reinstated her benefits.

If you receive a Notice of Determination informing you your benefits have been denied, once again, you must appeal by the date on the notice or you may lose your unemployment benefits.  Timely adherence to filing deadlines is essential.

The Appeal

Filing an appeal is simple.  A one-page appeal form will be included with the Notice of Financial Determination and/or Notice of Determination.  You can handwrite “I appeal,” and fax or mail it to the address on the notice.  No legal language or even an explanation of why you disagree with the Notice of Determination is required.  The employer may also appeal if you are granted benefits.  Once an appeal is filed, a date for a hearing at the local unemployment office will be scheduled and notice mailed to the parties.

You are not required to have an attorney represent you at an appeal hearing.  However, with several thousand dollars of your unemployment benefits at stake, ask yourself if you feel lucky enough to represent yourself on your own?  Will you know the right evidence to present?  Will you know what questions to ask the employer’s witnesses or when to object to the employer’s questions and evidence?  Chances are you won’t.  You may overlook a critical piece of evidence or a critical issue that could be the difference between winning and losing the appeal.  Once the hearing is over, the standard for overturning the referee’s decision on a further appeal is whether the referee committed an error of law or whether the decision went against the weight of the evidence.  You don’t get a do-over just because you would do things differently a second time.

If you are still determined to go it alone, identify the evidence that will show you did not quit or that your reasons for doing so were necessitous and compelling.  Write it down.  Don’t expect to win simply by showing up at the hearing and telling your side of the story.  Know the issues on your appeal, whether a voluntary quit or willful misconduct, and be prepared to present documents and testimony of other witnesses who will support you.  If the employer contends you committed willful misconduct, ask them to produce the written rule or policy you violated and prove that you received it.  Ask what evidence do they have that shows you acted deliberately?  Evidence that you made an error is not enough.

If you are unemployed and unjustly denied your unemployment benefits, don’t let your safety net be cut out from underneath you by failing to follow the steps outlined in this primer.  If you have any questions, please call me at (215) 493-8287 or email me at scott@fegleylaw.com.