US Airways can't share employee's lawsuit settlement without sharing legal costs, U.S. Supreme Court rules
US Airways Inc. can't grab the money an injured employee won in a lawsuit over a motor vehicle accident without sharing his legal costs because the company's health plan didn't spell out how to handle attorney fees, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in a case from federal court in Pittsburgh.
Steve Baicker-McKee, a Duquesne University law professor, said the justices made it clear that common principles of fairness and equity can't overrule specific contract language.
“If the parties' agreement specifically addresses an issue, it doesn't really matter if it's fair,” he said.
In this case, the airline paid $66,866 in medical bills for James McCutchen, 57, of East Liverpool, Ohio, for injuries from a three-car accident in January 2007 on Route 60 near the Hopewell exit in Beaver County.
The accident killed one person and left two others with severe brain injuries. McCutchen survived emergency surgery but his injuries left him disabled, according to court documents. He sued and settled for $100,000 from his insurance company and $10,000 from the driver who caused the accident.
McCutcheon paid $44,000 in attorney fees and ended up with $66,000. US Airways demanded McCutchen pay it the $66,866 it spent on medical bills, regardless of how much of his damage award went to his attorneys.
McCutchen argued that US Airways had a claim only on the part of the award covering medical expenses and couldn't touch compensation for lost future earnings or pain and suffering.
U.S. District Judge David Cercone ruled the airline's health plan specifically allowed it to recover the full amount, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his decision.
In a 5-4 ruling, the high court agreed with Cercone that McCutchen's contract allows the airline to recover the money it spent on medical claims, even if that cuts into the future earnings and pain and suffering awards, but the justices overturned his ruling that the airline wasn't liable for any of McCutchen's attorney fees.
Any other interpretation of the law “would put McCutchen $866 in the hole; in effect, he would pay for the privilege of serving as US Airways' collection agent,” Justice Elena Kagan said in the majority opinion.
The Supreme Court remanded the case back to Cercone.
“Well I guess that's better than nothing,” said McCutchen. He said he hadn't talked to his lawyer yet about the decision.
McCutchen's attorneys couldn't be reached for comment, nor could a US Airways representative. In the original lawsuit, US Airways still seeks more than $27,000 in attorney fees it spent suing McCutchen. Its pending motion is based on Cercone's ruling entirely in favor of the company.
Since the Supreme Court ruling partially overturns Cercone's ruling, the judge likely will require each side to cover its own legal costs, Baicker-McKee said.
When each side wins part of a lawsuit, “it's pretty common that (judges) will say no fees for either party,” he said.
Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- DUI checkpoints take on dangerous drivers
- Roundup: Mazda recalls cars to fix tire pressure monitors; Wal-Mart’s top merchant out as key holiday nears; more
- No. 15 San Diego State hammers Pitt, 74-57
- Cancer didn’t stop mother from living for her son
- Steelers cornerback Taylor ready to swap earpiece for helmet
- Woman sought in robbery in Unity
- Lower gasoline prices fail to spur consumer spending
- Steelers’ lookahead: New Orleans Saints
- U.S. Steel Tower tenants stand to benefit from company’s relocation
- FDA rule to require chain restaurants to post calorie counts
- Grease in Youngwood sewer system prompts another look at rule