eNotes: Liability – July 2021
July 01, 2021
SIGNIFICANT CASE SUMMARIES
FEDERAL CASE SUMMARY
Pyle v. Otis Elevator Co.
Third Circuit Court of Appeals
2021 U.S. app. LEXIS 10501
Decided: April 13, 2021
The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur does not apply where there exists the possibility of a non-negligent cause of the plaintiff’s injury.
Plaintiff worked as an emergency room technician at Aria-Jefferson Health Frankford, where Otis Elevator Company maintains the elevators. While working, Plaintiff wheeled an empty gurney out of an elevator. As Plaintiff was exiting the elevator, the gurney dropped and landed on Plaintiff’s foot, causing an injury. Plaintiff blamed the “misleveled elevator” for the incident, indicating that the elevator car stopped above the floor. Relying on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, Plaintiff filed suit against Otis Elevator Company for negligence in maintaining the elevators. After Otis moved for summary judgment, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted the Motion, finding the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur inapplicable because the Plaintiff failed to eliminate non-negligent causes of the incident. Plaintiff appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Eastern District’s Order granting the Motion for summary judgment. Res ipsa loquitur allows a plaintiff to satisfy his/her burden of proving a defendant’s negligence by establishing that he/she was injured by an event that would not have occurred in the absence of the defendant’s negligence. In the subject case, the Defendant had a duty to maintain the elevators at Aria-Jefferson Health Frankford. Plaintiff’s argument was that the elevator was misleveled and thus must have been negligently maintained. Plaintiff, however, failed to eliminate non-negligent causes of the incident. Plaintiff testified that he was not sure if the elevator leveled and that he rushed out of the elevator to catch the gurney. Absent the elimination of non-negligent causes of the injury, res ipsa loquitur could not apply and the Third Circuit Court, therefore, affirmed the Eastern District’s Order.
Questions about this case can be directed to Matthew Gerarde at (267) 861-7584 or firstname.lastname@example.org
PA CASE SUMMARIES
Smith v. U.S. Facilities, Inc.
Pennsylvania Superior Court
2021 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1547
Decided: June 10, 2021
The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is not applicable when an expert opinion is required to prove causation.
On August 4, 2016, Appellant was riding in one of two elevators reserved for employee use. At that time, the second elevator was also being used. That elevator ascended upward at a high rate of speed and crashed through the ceiling of the elevator shaft. The crash made a loud noise and dropped concrete onto the elevator occupied by Appellant, allegedly rocking the same. Claiming that she sustained injuries in connection with the incident, Appellant filed two separate negligence actions, asserting claims against Appellees U.S. Facilities, Inc., Otis Elevator Company, ThyssenKrupp Elevator Corporation and ThyssenKrupp Elevator Manufacturing. Appellant claimed that Appellees were negligent in their operation, maintenance and repair of the elevators.
The only expert report submitted by Appellant was in support of her alleged psychological injuries. The Appellees each filed a Motion for summary judgment advancing substantially the same argument, namely that expert testimony was necessary to establish the causal element of Appellant’s negligence claims. In response, Appellant argued that the facts necessary to establish the failure of the equipment were capable of being properly understood and determined by lay jurors. She further argued that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur rendered expert opinion unnecessary. The Trial Court granted the Appellees’ Motions for summary judgment, concluding that res ipsa loquitur was not applicable and that Appellant’s case on liability was unsupported by any expert evidence.
On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the Trial Court’s decision. It agreed with the Trial Court that elevators are complex machines and that the operation, maintenance, rate of customary breakdown, and customary repair, are matters outside of a lay person’s life experience. Therefore, without the required expert testimony to prove the element of causation, Appellant could not establish negligence. The Court further noted that there was not “a fund of common knowledge . . . from which a layperson could reasonably draw the inference or conclusion that Appellees’ acts caused her damages.” Therefore, Appellant could not satisfy the second prong of res ipsa loquitur, which requires the sufficient elimination of other responsible causes.
Questions about this case can be directed to Amanda Hennessey at (717) 300-0421 or email@example.com.
Dahl v. Sam’s East, Inc.
Pennsylvania Superior Court
No. 767 WDA 2020, 2021 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1459
Decided: June 1, 2021
Plaintiff’s testimony supported a finding that the condition he tripped over was open and obvious, negating any duty owed to him by the store.
Plaintiff tripped and fell over an unattended flatbed cart that was at the end of an aisle and was being used by an employee to stock strawberries. The employee stepped away from the flatbed cart to assist a customer when Plaintiff and his wife approached the flatbed cart. Plaintiff tripped and fell on the end of the flatbed cart when he tried to walk around it. Plaintiff sued the store for injuries that he sustained as a result of the fall. Plaintiff claimed that the flatbed cart was a dangerous condition and that the store violated its procedure by leaving it unattended. During his deposition, Plaintiff testified that the flatbed cart was not blocking the aisle, that he was aware of its presence, and that he had actually smelled the strawberries that were on the flatbed cart, but he tripped when he misjudged the length of the cart.
At the close of discovery, and relying on Plaintiff’s own testimony, the store moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the flatbed cart was an open and obvious condition that Plaintiff appreciated and failed to avoid by the exercise of ordinary care. The Trial Court granted the store’s Motion for summary judgment and Plaintiff appealed.
The Superior Court affirmed the Trial Court’s Order dismissing Plaintiff’s claim, finding that based on Plaintiff’s own admissions at deposition, there was no dispute that Plaintiff appreciated the location of the flatbed cart and could have avoided it. The Court rejected any claim that there were facts in dispute as taking all of Plaintiff’s testimony as true, the condition was open and obvious. It also rejected any claim that the unattended cart was a violation of procedure as Plaintiff’s own testimony established that the flatbed cart was visible, due to the presence of the strawberries, and was not blocking a walking aisle.
Questions about this case can be directed to Brook Dirlam at (412) 926-1438 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or to Rebecca Sember Izsak at (412) 926-1446 or email@example.com. Rebecca and Brook were the attorneys who obtained this successful outcome for the store.
Almonte v. ECN Staffing, Inc.
Pennsylvania Superior Court
No. 707 MDA 2020, 2021 Pa. Super. Unpub. Lexis 1014
Decided: April 16, 2021
Superior Court addresses the “quantity” prong of the venue test relative to a corporate defendant’s percentage of total overall business.
Plaintiff was injured when he fell through a hole in a machine being installed at an egg farm. He then filed suit in Luzerne County against several companies involved in the project, as well as the temporary service that employed him. The staffing service was the only defendant with a principal place of business in Luzerne County. As the staffing service was being removed from the case based upon workers’ compensation immunity, the remaining Defendants challenged venue.
Plaintiff conducted discovery related to venue, learning that one Defendant had sales and service calls in the forum county at least once every year between 2012 and 2019. Over these years, this conduct accounted for 0.18% of its total business. Conduct in the forum county in 2018 compromised 1.29% of that year’s gross revenue for that party. The Court considered these contacts and held that while they are “quality” contacts, they were not of sufficient “quantity” to sustain venue. On appeal, Plaintiff alleged that the Court erred in addressing the quantity prong of the venue test by focusing solely on the percentage of income generated by this recurring business in the forum county.
The Superior Court reversed, holding that venue was proper under the framework of the “quality-quantity” analysis. The Superior Court reasoned that the percentage of a company’s overall business in a county is not determinative of the “quantity” prong of the analysis. Looking to the totality of the circumstances, it held that the Defendant’s contacts with the forum county were habitual, despite comprising only a fraction of their total business. Thus, venue was proper and it was an abuse of discretion to transfer the case. Further, because venue was proper as to one Defendant, it was proper as to the other Defendants as well.
Questions about this case can be directed to Logan Nagle at (717) 255-7234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mazzie v. Lehigh Valley Hosp. – Muhlenberg
Pennsylvania Superior Court
No. 473 EDA 2020
Decided: April 16, 2021
Plaintiff’s medical expert’s testimony met the “reasonable degree of medical certainty” standard and was sufficient to send the case to the jury.
Plaintiff brought a medical malpractice action against the Defendants, alleging injuries resulting from a laparoscopic surgery to repair an incisional hernia. At the conclusion of trial, Defendants orally moved for compulsory non-suit, arguing that Plaintiff’s sole medical expert did not support his opinions to the requisite degree of medical certainty. The Trial Court denied Defendants’ Motion and the Defendants filed an appeal.
On appeal, the Defendants argued that the Trial Court should have granted their motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the totality and substance of the Plaintiff’s expert’s testimony was that it was “more likely than not that Dr. Garcia negligently performed Plaintiff’s surgery,” and that his testimony fell below the “reasonable degree of medical certainty” standard, thereby warranting judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Plaintiff countered by arguing that the expert did testify to a reasonable degree of medical certainty in that he testified to an “absolute certainty” that the use of a Veress needle in the area of prior scarring was a violation of the standard of care.
In a medical negligence case, the plaintiff must present an expert witness who will provide testimony, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, regarding the standard of care and the physician’s deviation from the standard of care. The expert must also opine as to proximate cause, which can be established with testimony that the physician’s conduct increased the risk of the harm actually sustained. In the subject case, the Superior Court stated that that the expert’s testimony must be examined in its entirety, and that a failure to use the words “reasonable degree of medical certainty” will not necessarily render the expert’s testimony deficient. With that, the Court found that the Plaintiff’s expert testified to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, as he was steadfast in his testimony that the Defendant physician deviated from acceptable standards when he used a Veress needle to repair the Plaintiff’s incisional and umbilical hernias, and that such deviation was the proximate cause of her post-operative injuries. Accordingly, the Court upheld the denial of Defendant’s Motion for non-suit.
Questions about this case can be directed to Jillian Denicola at (570) 825-5653 or email@example.com.
Sylvester v. Alvin Ziegler Snow Removal
Monroe County Court of Common Pleas
Decided: April 6, 2021
Hills and ridges reasonableness standard applies to snow falling from roof.
Plaintiff sought damages from his employer’s snow removal contractor for negligent failure to clear snow from the roof. Evidence revealed that when Plaintiff arrived at work on the morning of the accident, there was light snow falling. Over the course of the day, approximately 20” of snow accumulated such that several of Plaintiff’s co-workers left early due to increasingly dangerous road conditions. As he was leaving work at the end of his shift, the parking lot and walkways had not yet been cleared of the snow. While walking away from the building, Plaintiff was struck and knocked down by snow and ice falling from the roof. Plaintiff did not know whether there had been snow and ice on the roof before the snow storm that day. Weather reports showed that the last measurable snow fall had been 6 days earlier. Defendant testified that he did not have sufficient manpower to inspect the roof due to the severity of the storm. He further testified that after several hours of snow removal efforts, he called off the snow removal activities until the storm abated.
Defendant Moved for summary judgment claiming that the hills and ridges doctrine establishes a reasonableness standard to judge defendant’s duty when snow and ice prevail. Plaintiff claimed that the hills and ridges doctrine did not apply to these circumstances because that doctrine applies to sidewalk and road surfaces and Defendant had spent several hours engaged in snow removal before giving up. The Trial Court noted that landowners are given a reasonable time to clear public areas, at least while a storm is continuing as it was in this case. The Court reasoned that it was not “reasonable” to expect landowners to clear snow at their own peril during an ongoing storm. The Court held that the same reasonableness standard applies whether the snow to be removed is on the ground or on the roof.
The Trial Court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendant because it would be unreasonable to impose liability on the Defendant for not clearing rooftops during a severe, ongoing storm. Since landowners are granted a reasonable period of time to clear snow, Defendant could not be expected to have cleared snow from the roof before the time of the Plaintiff’s injury.
Questions about this case can be directed to James F. Swartz, III at (610) 332-7028 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
MD CASE SUMMARY
Anne Arundel County v. Reeves
Maryland Court of Appeals
2021 Md. LEXIS 259
Decided: June 7, 2021
Court of Appeals finds that owners of pets killed by the negligence of others can recover, at most, $10,000 for emotional pain and suffering.
During a search for an unrelated perpetrator, an Anne Arundel County Police Officer entered Mr. Reeves’ property and encountered his dog, Vern, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, who was in the front yard of Mr. Reeves’ home. While Vern took no aggressive action, the officer, evidently believing he would be attacked, shot Vern twice, killing him. Mr. Reeves subsequently brought suit alleging that, by fatally shooting Vern, the officer committed a trespass to Mr. Reeves’ chattel and acted with gross negligence.
At trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Mr. Reeves and awarded $10,000 for the trespass to chattel claim. In addition, the jury awarded $500,000 in economic damages and $750,000 in noneconomic damages for the gross negligence claim. The Circuit Court reduced by damages for the negligence claim to $200,000, pursuant to the Local Government Tort Claims Act, and reduced the trespass to chattel damages to $7,500, pursuant to the then-applicable damages cap on damages for injuries to pets.
Maryland’s Court of Appeals held that the damages cap on damages for injuries to pets limits the recovery for compensatory damages to the amount specified by that statute, which at the time was $7,500. The Court based its holding on a Maryland statute limiting the recoverable amount in pet cases, its relationship to Maryland’s Wrongful Death Act, and its legislative history. The Court reduced the total damages awarded to $7,500, including the damages awarded for gross negligence, reasoning that the statutory limit applied to the entire damages award. Of note, since the incident at issue in Reeves, the applicable damages cap has been increased to $10,000, which is now the statutory limit applicable to the entire damages awarded to owners of pets killed by the negligence of others.
Questions about this case can be directed to Nicholas Schaufelberger at (202) 945-9502 or email@example.com.
NJ CASE SUMMARY
Gayles v. Sky Zone
New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division
Decided: May 12, 2021
In parent’s negligence action against trampoline park owner, summary judgment was properly denied because the third-party who signed the park’s waiver lacked apparent authority.
Joan Tongol invited friends of her minor son to attend Sky Zone Trampoline Park operated by Defendant. Tongol told the children’s parents that she would drive the children to the trampoline park. On the day of the party, Plaintiff Gayles drove her son Justin, also a minor, to the Tongol home. On arrival at Sky Zone, after she checked in and paid for the group, Tongol completed and signed an agreement. In the section of the agreement titled “Included Minors,” Tongol listed every child with his or her birthdate, which she obtained by asking the children. Tongol completed the agreement without reading it fully and without any assistance from Defendant’s staff. None of the children’s parents had executed a power of attorney in favor of Tongol. While playing on the trampolines, Justin Gayles fractured his leg. His parents subsequently brought suit. Defendant filed for summary judgment to dismiss Plaintiff’s Complaint and to compel arbitration of the claim under the agreement. The Trial Court denied the Motion, finding the agreement void and unenforceable.
On appeal, Defendant argued the Trial Judge erred in denying summary judgment and not compelling arbitration because Tongol “had apparent authority to execute the Agreement on [Plaintiff’s] behalf.” Defendant also contended that Tongol’s apparent authority thus rendered the agreement enforceable.
The Appellate Court upheld the Trial Court’s decision because the third-party (Tongol) who signed the park’s waiver of rights, which included the arbitration provision, was not the Plaintiff minor’s parent, guardian or attorney-in-fact, and lacked apparent authority to execute the waiver regarding the minor’s personal injury claims. The owner could not rely solely on its own general admission procedure to support the reasonableness of its belief that Tongol had authority to act for the minor’s parent and execute the waiver. Also, the parents of the Plaintiff minor had no direct or indirect communication with the owner and there was no relevant “practice” or pattern of conduct between the parents and the owner Defendant to render the agreement enforceable.
Questions about this case can be directed to Michael Bishop at (908) 574-0510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
DC CASE SUMMARY
Harris v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth.
United States District Court for the District of Columbia
490 F.Supp.3d 295
Decided: September 29, 2020
Mother’s claim against subway authority for negligent failure to render aid to her deceased son survives summary judgement.
On the night of April 28, 2019, the Plaintiff’s son got into a verbal altercation with some other passengers while riding a bus. Soon after the argument, he exited the bus along with other passengers, including a couple with whom he had argued while on the bus. The Plaintiff’s son went to a nearby subway station which, unknown to him, was closed, even though the station’s entrance escalators were running. Once he was on the escalator, the Plaintiff’s son was attacked from behind by a man involved in the earlier altercation. The Plaintiff’s son fell down the escalator and came to a stop at the barricaded underground subway entrance. The assailant then fought the Plaintiff’s son in front of the barricaded entrance, stabbing him multiple times throughout the fight. The man left the Plaintiff’s son on the ascending escalator and left the station. Minutes later, a patrolling station attendant walked by the barricaded entrance, but did not exit the station to render aid to the Plaintiff’s son. Sometime thereafter, subway police arrived, but were unable to revive the Plaintiff’s son, who died as a result of his injuries.
Plaintiff sued the subway authority for, among other things, negligently failing to render medical aid to her dying son. The subway authority moved for summary judgement relying on security camera footage that showed that the station was closed at the time of the attack. In addition, the footage showed the attendant in the area minutes after the man discarded the Plaintiff’s son on the ascending escalator. The Defendant argued that it owed no duty to render aid to the decedent because the station was closed.
The District Court for the District of Columbia held that, under the circumstances, a reasonable jury could find that the subway negligently failed to render aid to Plaintiff’s son, causing his death. The Court reasoned that any business open to the public owes a duty to render aid to injured persons on their property. The Court further reasoned that even though the station was closed, a jury could find that the decedent reasonably thought the station was open due to the operating escalators. The Court explained that the reasonable conclusion that the station was open could trigger the Defendant’s duty to render medical assistance, even though it was closed. As a result, the Court denied the Motion for summary judgment because a jury could find that the Defendant owed a duty to render aid and failed to do so.
Questions about this case can be directed to Ryan Stanley at (202) 945-9504 or email@example.com.
VA CASE SUMMARY
Doe v. Baker
Virginia Supreme Court
Decided: April 29, 2021
Virginia Supreme Court reverses dismissal of claim against church defendants for negligent retention of minister following alleged sexual assault of minor.
Jane Doe, while a minor, alleged she was molested by Jonathan King, a retired, but still active, pastor of her church. King had served as a pastor with the Church of God since 1967. In 1995, he was hired to serve as the pastor of the Waynesboro Celebration congregation, where he was acquainted with Jane Doe and her family. He retired in April 2011, but continued to act as a minister and offered spiritual counseling to the church’s members, including Doe. On July 8, 2016, Doe and her mother went to King’s home to bring him and his wife tomatoes from the farmer’s market. King was left alone with Doe in the living room and the alleged molestation occurred “under the guise of offering spiritual advice and comfort.” Doe told her parents what happened several days later.
Prior to this incident, church officials had been made aware of several instances, dating back to 1996, after his hiring by Waynesboro Celebration, where King had made unwanted sexual advances on women and had engaged in nonspecific inappropriate conduct with young girls. In 2002, the church ordered King and his wife to attend a counseling and mental health facility. The counselor reported to the church that King needed “to set healthy boundaries with women” and needed to be held accountable for his inappropriate actions. Doe filed suit against the Virginia Church of God and the National Church of God for negligent hiring and negligent retention of King. The Circuit Court dismissed the case based on its review of the allegations in the Complaint. Doe appealed.
The Supreme Court held that claims for negligent hiring and retention are not viable for conduct of a former employee. Termination of employment is a logical and practical boundary for such claims, and holding an employer liable for an employee’s post-termination behavior would impose an unpredictable and potentially limitless duty of care. With no allegations regarding King’s conduct prior to 1995, the Court affirmed the dismissal of the negligent hiring claim. However, the Court reversed the dismissal of the negligent retention claim because the Complaint alleged that King, despite “retiring,” was acting as an agent, volunteer or employee of the church. The Court found that the Complaint depicted “a progressive pattern of worsening conduct, and an apparent failure of the counseling in 2002 to reform his behavior.” The case was remanded for further proceedings.
Questions about this case can be directed to Nicholas Phillips at (571) 464-0436 or firstname.lastname@example.org.