The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently reinstated a controversial ruling that had been issued by corrupt former Luzerne County judge Michael Conahan. The new ruling was issued in the Forester Vanderhoff v. Harleysville Insurance case, and it restored a 2004 decision by Conahan that allowed the case to be brought to arbitration. The case involved claims of a so-called “phantom vehicle” causing a car crash when a truck driver rear-ended a car in Hanover Township.
This is one of many uninsured or underinsured motorist arbitration rulings that are part of the federal government’s ongoing judicial corruption investigation in Luzerne County.
Disputed Facts of the Accident
In October of 2001, Forester Vanderhoff drove his company’s truck into Ryan Piontkowski’s car at a busy intersection on the Sans Souci Parkway. Vanderhoff claims that he started driving after a green arrow appeared, but took his eyes off the road for a moment. When he looked back, he saw that Piontkowski’s car had stopped in front of him to avoid an unidentified car, the “phantom vehicle.” Vanderhoff says he applied the brakes, but was unable to stop.
If the “phantom vehicle” existed and did in fact cause the accident, the unidentified car would constitute an uninsured motor vehicle under state law, forcing Harleysville Insurance to pay Vanderhoff’s claims. The problem is both Piontkowski and the police officer who investigated the accident denied that another vehicle was involved. Vanderhoff himself failed to mention the “phantom vehicle” until several months after the accident, when he received a copy of the police report and noticed that it mentioned only two vehicles. Vanderhoff asked the police department to change the report. His request was denied, but he later claimed to have informed a police officer and the insurance company about the “phantom vehicle” shortly after the crash.
When the case came before Judge Conahan, he found Vanderhoff’s version of the accident to be more believable and ruled that the existence of an unidentified vehicle had been proven. This permitted the case to be brought to an arbitration panel, which granted Vanderhoff an award of $500,000.
In 2009, former judge Conahan pleaded guilty to wire fraud and conspiracy for taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks. Under the plea agreement, Conahan has resigned from the bench and bar and will serve 87 months in federal prison.
Although Conahan’s conviction was for cases unrelated to Vanderhoff v. Harleysville Insurance, it calls into question the integrity of his decisions in that case and others. For this reason, the ongoing judicial corruption probe in Luzerne County continues. The FBI recently sought all files or records relating to uninsured or underinsured motorist cases in Luzerne County since January of 2002. Approximately 87 files and records were turned over.
Although improprieties in the conduct of the Luzerne County insurance arbitration process are not easy to prove, rumors that case fixing is the target of the federal probe have been persistent. Conahan was the judge who decided a number of cases involving the appointment of neutral arbitrators in auto insurance cases between 1995 and 2008.
After years of moving through the court system, the outcome of the Vanderhoff v. Harleysville Insurance case is still uncertain. Under the July 6, 2010 decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the case will be remanded to a trial-level court to determine whether the insurance company was prejudiced by the delayed notice of the “phantom vehicle.” Essentially, if the insurer can show its case was substantially harmed by Vanderhoff’s failure to tell them about another vehicle in a timely fashion, the insurer may be able to deny uninsured motorist benefits. If not, Vanderhoff will likely be able to retain his awarded monetary relief.
The judicial corruption probe in Luzerne County is an ongoing process, and the FBI has been tight-lipped as to the details. But, if you are involved in any of the uninsured motorist cases being scrutinized, it would be wise to keep a keen eye for developments and to consult an attorney.