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Pennsylvania Court Grants New Trial Where Defendant Prejudiced by Failure to Apportion Fault

Recently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reviewed a judgment in favor of a woman who had been injured while leaving a swim club. In this case, Maryann Dunlap was leaving the Ridley Park Swim Club (the Club) when a dead and decaying tree fell on her, causing serious injuries. Before the accident, the tree stood on property owned by Harper Associates (Harper), close to the property line separating Harper’s property from the Club.   Harper had not inspected the tree to determine if it posed a hazard to individuals on either property.

Ms. Dunlap brought a lawsuit against multiple defendants, including the Club and Harper. Before trial, Harper and Ms. Dunlap submitted their dispute to arbitration. Ms. Dunlap was awarded $350,000.00, and then she and Harper entered into a pro rata joint tortfeasor release. Ms. Dunlap accepted the award in exchange for dropping all claims against Harper. The release stated that recovery against the Club should be reduced to the extent of the pro rata share of damages attributable to Harper.

Ms. Dunlap’s expert created a report stating that Harper was responsible for her injuries. But the report was not provided to the Club until after the trial had begun, despite the trial court’s scheduling order and its direction that reports be produced before trial. A second report stated the Club was at fault for failing to examine the trees on the Harper property. This report was promptly provided to the Club.

During trial, the Club objected to Ms. Dunlap’s expert testimony because his reports were produced past the deadline set by the court. Harper did not participate in the trial. At the conclusion of Ms. Dunlap’s case in chief, the trial court held that Harper would not appear on the verdict form. The court stated that the Club would not be able to demonstrate a prima facie case of negligence by Harper. According to the trial court, this is because the Club had failed to retain an expert witness to testify about Harper’s negligence.   The jury ruled in favor of Ms. Dunlap for $750,000.00. The court denied the Club’s post-trial motion. and the Club appealed.

On appeal, the Club argued that Harper’s alleged negligence should have been submitted to the jury. The issue before the appellate court was whether the Club made a prima facie showing of Harper’s negligence.

Negligence requires proof of a duty or obligation, a breach of that duty, causation, and actual damages. When the subject matter of the negligence is outside the skill and knowledge of an ordinary layperson, expert testimony is required.

On appeal, the court first stated that Harper had a duty to inspect the tree, and expert testimony was not required to reach this conclusion. A landowner has a duty to inspect trees near a developed or residential area. The court stated that additionally, since the parking lot on the Club’s property is developed land, there was a duty on the part of Harper to inspect the trees that abut the property.

Regarding the breach of duty, the court stated there is no need for expert testimony on the question of whether a tree was inspected. At trial, one of Harper’s principals testified that Harper never visually inspected the tree at issue. Based on this, the jury could have determined that Harper breached their duty to inspect the trees next to the Club property.

The appeals court stated that the Club made a prima facie showing, based on the testimony of Ms. Dunlap’s expert, that the subject tree may have caused Ms. Dunlap’s injuries. Therefore, the Club made a showing that Harper would or should have noticed the tree was dangerous, if it had been inspected. Finally, the court stated it was undisputed that the tree caused Ms. Dunlap’s injuries.

The court stated that since the Club made a prima facie showing of Harper’s negligence, the trial court abused its discretion by not including Harper on the verdict form. The jury should have the opportunity to apportion responsibility between the Club and Harper. This prejudicial error may have hurt the Club, since if the jury had found Harper responsible, they would have reduced the damages award according to the pro rata joint tortfeasor release.

The judgment was vacated and the case remanded. The court stated that the Club is entitled to a new trial.

This personal injury lawsuit involved procedural and substantive issues concerning a prima facie case of negligence. At Needle Law, we represent injured individuals in their personal injury matters and provide a free consultation. Contact us at 570-344-1266.

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