Suits Over Erie Insurance Virus Denials Grouped In Pittsburgh

By Matthew Santoni
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Law360 (July 23, 2020, 3:15 PM EDT) -- Lawsuits from across Pennsylvania accusing Erie Insurance Exchange of improperly denying businesses coverage for losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic will be coordinated in Allegheny County, a state court judge ordered Thursday.

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Christine A. Ward ordered that ongoing cases from Allegheny, Philadelphia and Lancaster counties and any future state court suits against Erie be brought to her courtroom and coordinated.

"The Allegheny County action, Philadelphia County action, and the Lancaster County action are coordinated for all pre-trial matters, trial, and full and final resolution," the judge's order said. "Defendant shall notify this court of any further similar actions filed against defendant, and those actions will be transferred to this court and made part of the proceedings coordinated by this order."

The order will create a common forum for all the Pennsylvania COVID-19 insurance cases against Erie, one of many insurers being sued across many courts over its denials of coverage for losses caused by the coronavirus and the state-mandated closures in response to it.

Joseph Tambellini Restaurant in Pittsburgh's Highland Park neighborhood and Sieb's Pub in suburban Ross Township had initially filed separate complaints against Erie in Allegheny County in April, and petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court later that month to exercise its "King's Bench" jurisdiction and make a statewide ruling on whether the pandemic and closures were a "physical loss" that should be covered under their Erie policies. However, the justices declined to do so in May.

They had also asked the Supreme Court to order similar insurance cases to be coordinated in a single county or under a handful of judges, but that request was left unanswered. Erie had the Sieb's Pub suit, a proposed class action, moved to federal court, but the case was withdrawn and a revised version was refiled in Allegheny County.

The same attorneys represented a car dealership and repair shop in Pittsburgh that also filed suit against Erie on June 10, a pair of Philadelphia restaurants that filed May 29 and a Lancaster County group of floral shops that filed suit May 14.

Those attorneys petitioned Judge Ward to coordinate their cases and others from around the state on June 24. The Tambellini case was the first state court lawsuit against Erie, and could anchor the cases in Pittsburgh, they said. Philadelphia, while it has a similar specialty court for complex or commercial cases, was already dealing with a heavy caseload, while Lancaster County had no comparable specialty court, the motion said.

"Coordination ... in Allegheny County — a court with a structured case management program for commerce, complex and class cases designed to provide litigants with timely resolution of disputes by a judge with expertise and experience in such actions — will promote the efficient utilization of judicial facilities and the just and efficient conduct of the actions," the plaintiffs' motion to coordinate said.

Erie countered that the circumstances in each case were too different to gain anything by lumping them together.

Judge Ward gave parties in the coordinated lawsuits 30 days from Thursday or 14 days from after they are notified, whichever is later, to file any objections to being moved. Erie will be responsible for notifying plaintiffs in other related actions against it, the order said.

If no one in a case raising common questions of fact or law objects to being moved to Allegheny County, the case will be automatically transferred, the order said; if there is an objection, then any of the other parties can file a response and the court will weigh whether to order the transfer or not.

"We are pleased with the court's decision to coordinate these cases in one court as this determination will result in efficiencies for both litigants and the court," said Jonathan Shub of Shub Law Firm LLC, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. "We look forward to aggressively advancing our client's interests in procuring insurance coverage under their policies."

A representative of Erie declined to comment Thursday.

Erie is represented by Richard DiBella and Tara Maczuzak of DiBella Geer McAllister Best PC, and Robert Horst, Robbery Runyon III and Matthew Malamud of Timoney Knox LLP.

Tambellini and Sieb's are represented by James Haggerty of Haggerty Goldberg Schleifer & Kupersmith PC; Scott Cooper of Schmidt Kramer PC; John Goodrich of Jack Goodrich & Associates PC; Michael Boni, Joshua Snyder and John Sindoni of Boni Zack & Snyder LLC; and Jonathan Shub of Shub Law Firm LLC.

The case is Joseph Tambellini Inc. v. Erie Insurance Exchange, case number GD-20-005137, in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

--Editing by Abbie Sarfo.

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