By a 45-5 vote, the Senate passed legislation expanding the provision of the so-called “Castle Doctrine” that protects the right of homeowners to use deadly force against intruders in their home and property.

Under previous law, homeowners were able to use deadly force to defend themselves against an intruder while in their living room, dining room, den, kitchen, basement or other area within the house. In other areas, such as a garage, porch, driveway, yard or vehicle, homeowners had to first attempt to retreat from the intruder before legally using their weapon to protect themselves.

House Bill 40 eliminates an individual’s duty to retreat before using lethal force outside of his home or vehicle. It creates a presumption that the occupant of a home or vehicle has reasonable belief that the use of deadly force is necessary to protect himself against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or rape from an intruder.

The presumption will not apply if the person entering the home or vehicle has a right to be in the home or vehicle; a parent, grandparent or guardian removing a child from the home or vehicle; an on-duty peace officer; or if the person using protective force is engaged in criminal activity.

Finally, the bill makes theft of a firearm a first-degree felony where the defendant is in the business of buying or selling stolen property.

The bill was signed into law as Act 10 of 2011.

* * *

The Senate unanimously passed House Bill 148, an omnibus bill that allows bar, restaurant and hotel owners to extend “happy hours” — the length of time they may discount the price of alcohol.

Under this bill, alcohol-serving establishments will still only be able to offer discounted alcohol for a total of 14 hours per week. However, they may use up to four hours per day of the granted 14 hours, instead of just two hours, which the previous law specified. In addition, they must post notices as to when happy hours will be held at least seven days in advance.

Additionally, House Bill 148 permits owners of hotels and restaurants to purchase an additional license that allows the establishment to sell meals and alcohol for consumption at an off-site, otherwise unlicensed premises. The measure prohibits these establishments from holding more than 50 off-premises, catered events per year and requires that the local or state police be notified of the event in advance.

Previous law prohibited establishments from providing alcohol at any location other than the licensed premises. If the catering business wanted to cater an event off the licensed premises, the customer had to purchase all of the alcohol separately from the meal.

The Senate amended the bill to remove a provision that would have allowed restaurant patrons to purchase up to three bottles of wine to take home.

The bill was signed into law as Act 11 of 2011.

* * *

The Senate passed Senate Bill 1131 by a 32-18 vote, ending Pennsylvania’s joint and several liability doctrine.

Previously, the joint and several liability doctrine required a defendant to pay the share of a verdict that a co-defendant could not afford, no matter what percentage of liability was assessed to both. , and it is up to the paying defendant to seek repayment from the non-paying one.

Under Senate Bill 1131, also known as the Fair Share Act, each responsible defendant only pays the share they were liable for — as long if the jury finds them less than 60 percent at fault. If a defendant is found more than 60 percent at fault, they can be made to pay 100 percent of the damages if the other defendants do not have sufficient funds.

Proponents said the legislation would make the law more equitable. Most Democrats criticized the bill for protecting big business over the rights of innocent victims.  

The bill was signed into law as Act 17 of 2011.

* * *

The Senate unanimously passed House Bills 373 and 374, which allow for the sale of personal property by online or electronic auction in boroughs and incorporated towns, respectively.

Prior to this legislation, sale by auction was allowed in Pennsylvania, but the law did not specify whether an online or electric auction could take place.

The bills were signed into law as Act 12 and Act 13 of 2011, respectively.

* * *

The Senate passed Senate Bill 386 by a 34-16 vote.  This bill would amend the County Code to add an option to abolish the office of Jury Commissioner in Second Class A through Eighth Class counties. 

The position could be abolished following a majority vote of a county’s governing body, but could not be passed in any year that the jury commissioner is on the ballot.

The bill was sent to the House.

* * *

The Senate approved (47-3) legislation that permits non-coal surface mining activities on land enrolled in the state’s “Clean and Green” program.

The program was created in 1974 to encourage preservation of agricultural land. Properties enrolled in the program are assessed and taxed based on their use value, rather than the higher market value. Under the previous law, if the use of the property changes, owners could have been assessed roll-back taxes on all or part of the land. 

House Bill 143 allows a Clean and Green property owner to lease or devote land to small non-coal surface mining. The landowner will now only be assessed roll-back taxes on the portion of the land being used.

A small non-coal surface mining permit limits the permit area to no more than five acres and extraction of no more than 10,000 tons of non-coal minerals per year.

Only one small non-coal surface mining permit can be active at any one time on land subject to a single application for preferential assessment. These regulations are consistent with the regulations already in place for the exploration and extraction of gas, oil, and coal bed methane.

The bill was signed into law as Act 34 of 2011.

* * *

The Senate unanimously approved legislation that makes changes regarding when roll-back taxes are due when an oil or gas well is drilled on land enrolled in “Clean and Green.”

House Bill 144 changes the time when roll-back taxes and fair market value assessment can be applied from when a well site restoration report is approved by Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to when a well production report is submitted to DEP.

The bill was signed into law as Act 35 of 2011.

* * *

By a 49-1 vote, the Senate approved legislation adopting the “Honor and Remember Flag” as an official flag in Pennsylvania to honor fallen members of the armed services.

The Honor and Remember Flag was created to pay tribute to brave men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces who died in the line of duty. 

Under House Bill 385, the Department of General Services is required to place the flag in Soldiers’ Grove at the State Capitol along with the national flag, the state flag, and POW/MIA flag.

Currently, the Honor and Remember flag is not recognized as an official national flag by the U.S. Congress.

The bill was signed into law as Act 19 of 2011.

* * *

The Senate unanimously approved legislation that would require dentists to carry malpractice insurance.

Senate Bill 388 would require licensed dentists to purchase medical professional liability insurance of $1 million per occurrence or claim and $3 million per annual aggregate.

The applicant for a license or renewal license would be required to provide proof of professional liability insurance to the State Board of Dentistry within 60 days of the policy being issued. If they fail to do so, their license would be refused, revoked, or suspended by the board.

Liability insurance coverage by the dentist’s employer or the community-based clinic for dentists with a volunteer license would be considered acceptable insurance coverage.

The bill is now in the House Insurance Committee.

* * *

The Senate unanimously passed House Bill 440, making workers’ compensation insurance coverage available to previously ineligible business entities, including members of a business partnership or limited liability corporation. 

The bill was signed into law as Act 20 of 2011.

* * *

The Senate unanimously passed legislation to extend the adjusted rate of return for Pennsylvania Lottery games, allowing the lottery to continue marketing programs intended to boost sales and overall revenue.  Current law requires that 30 percent of total revenues from Lottery sales go to programs benefitting seniors and other eligible citizens. 

Act 58 of 2008 lowered that return rate to 27 percent to allow the lottery to adjust its mix of games to meet consumer demand and increase sales.    The provision of Act 58 expired on June 30. House Bill 986 extends it until June 30, 2015.  The extension is expected to boost the overall lottery return by $86.3 million.

The measure also requires the Department of Revenue to annually submit a report by June 1 to legislative leaders with data on current Lottery profits and a strategy to increase future profits. 

The report will be posted on the Department of Revenue’s website.  The bill was signed into law as Act 23 of 2011.

* * *

The Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 800, which would allow no more than two of the state Horse Racing Commission’s three members to reside in the same county at the time of the appointment.  The bill was amended in committee to make the same restriction apply to the state Harness Racing Commission.

The bill is now in the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.

* * *

The Senate unanimously passed legislation extending the First Industries Fund, a loan, loan guarantee, and grant program aimed at strengthening Pennsylvania’s agriculture and tourism industries.   The program was scheduled to sunset June 30. Senate Bill 1007 extends the date until July 15, 2015.  

The First Industries Fund is administered by both the Commonwealth Financing Authority and the Department of Community and Economic Development.  Funds from loan and loan guarantees may be used for land and building acquisition and construction, machinery and equipment purchase and upgrades, and working capital.

The bill was signed into law as Act 27 of 2011.

* * *

The Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 200, which would establish the Safety in Youth Sports Act.

This bill would require the departments of Health and Education to use materials developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop and post on their Internet websites guidelines and other materials to educate student-athletes, parents and coaches about the nature and risk of concussion and traumatic brain injury that could occur while playing sports. 

The bill would affect all students attending a public school, school district, nonpublic school or private school who have elected to participate in PIAA (Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association) activities.

The bill is currently in the House.

* * *

The Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 458, which would amend the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act of 1966 and rename it the “Mental Health and Intellectual Disability Act.”

Already, some county agencies including Chester County’s have updated their department titles with more appropriate terms. The measure is part of a Senate Democrat’s “Words Do Matter” effort that seeks to strike the word “retardation” from state statutes and use.

The bill is now in the House.

* * *

By a 33 to 17 vote, the Senate passed Senate Bill 1127, which would prohibit school boards from voting or taking any other official action, other than emergency votes, between October 1 of each odd-numbered year and the December meeting that is required to be held that same year.

Designed to eliminate lame duck voting, school districts that violate this measure would face a surcharge to be paid to the school district equal to 10 percent of the cost of the matter on which the vote was taken.  The surcharge would not apply if a board voted no on an issue.

The bill is now in the House Education Committee.

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