With two vacant judgeships, Washington gets help from Allegheny jurists

March 29, 2013

Washington County Court may be down two judges, but President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca said she wants justice to run at full capacity.

Exiting the six-member Washington County bench mid-year in 2012 was Judge Paul Pozonsky, and Judge Janet Moschetta Bell retired at year-end. Both seats will be filled in this year’s election, in which eight hopefuls have cross-filed.

“I had to significantly change the judicial assignments for the year 2013 as a result of our court being one-third vacant,” the president judge said in a statement.

“In the civil division, we combined all trial-ready cases into a single list for jury trials, nonjury trials and jury arbitration appeals. We began the year with 128 total cases for trial and have been vigorously pursuing disposition of them ever since. As of (Thursday), there are 79.

“With the help of Allegheny County judges, we have scheduled 46 of these cases for settlement conferences the week of April 8, and several others have certain trial dates.”

O’Dell Seneca called the assistance from Allegheny County Judges Michael DellaVecchia and Paul F. Lutty Jr., and Senior Judge Timothy Patrick O’Reilly “monumental.”

Two of the three have made the news in recent months.

DellaVecchia presided over the trial late last year in Allegheny County court in which a jury awarded a record $109 million to the survivors of a Westmoreland County wife and mother who was burned to death in 2009 when a power line fell on her. West Penn Power Co. agreed to drop its appeal last month and pay her family $105 million.

Earlier this year in Washington County Court, O’Reilly presided at a trial in which a jury awarded $925,000 to a husband and wife after he was struck in 2007 by falling wet cement at a coal-preparation plant in Waynesburg. The defendant in the case was Lone Pine Construction Inc. of Bentleyville.

According to Washington County Court’s 2011 annual report, the latest available on its website, 9,703 civil cases were filed with the prothonotary’s office.

This number reflects all arbitrations, appeals from district judges’ offices, divorce and custody, mortgage foreclosures, tax assessment appeals, mental health cases and disputes potentially resolved through jury and non-jury trials, such as those involving contracts, medical and product liability and asbestos-injury litigation.

Allegheny County Judge Edward J. Borkowski Jr. has been lending a hand in Washington County criminal court in handling guilty pleas and admissions to the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program. Courthouse employees have praised his meticulousness.

Last year, according to Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone, the office resolved 3,209 criminal cases.

Washington County’s jurists and their assignments are: Judge Katherine B. Emery, the Children and Youth Services agency and criminal court; Judge John DiSalle, orphan’s court and criminal court; Judge Gary Gilman, divorce, custody, domestic relations, protection from abuse and summary appeals; and O’Dell Seneca, civil jury trials, mental health court, driver’s license suspension appeals, mortgage foreclosures, property assessment appeals, oversight of district judges, chairman of the jury selection commission and court representative to the county salary board.

Washington County Court website: www.washingtoncourts.us/

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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