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Pennsylvania Court Upholds Vicarious Liability and Corporate Negligence Claims in Wrongful Death Case

In a recent case, the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed allegations of vicarious liability and corporate negligence against a hospital and its treating physicians. Procedurally, the administrator of the estate of Mr. Arthur Denmark appealed from a trial court dismissal of his claims against a hospital and its entities.  Mr. Hurst, the administrator, named four defendants in his complaint:  Dr. Hallur, Dr. Williams, and the Hospital entities. Mr. Hurst filed an amended complaint in response to preliminary objections.

He alleged that Arthur Denmark was admitted to the hospital in order to undergo a tracheotomy, due to his emphysema.  He was allegedly alert and responsive, until he was either allowed or tried to leave his bed without assistance, and he fell out of his bed.  This fall dislocated his catheter, and it could not be replaced.  Surgery was scheduled, during which Mr. Denmark’s bladder was severely lacerated. Allegedly, gauze was negligently left in Mr. Denmark’s body after the surgery was complete, and blood continued to be present in Mr. Denmark’s urine. According to Mr. Hurst, the negligence of the defendants resulted in Mr. Denmark’s development of septic shock and eventual death.

The amended complaint set forth causes of action against the doctors for negligence and against the hospital for vicarious liability and corporate negligence.  Mr. Hurst also brought causes of action for wrongful death and survival damages against all of the defendants.

The trial court sustained preliminary objections to the amended complaint and, among other rulings, dismissed Mr. Hurst’s claims against the hospital entities for vicarious liability and corporate negligence. Mr. Hurst contends that striking his allegations concerning unidentified agents was error because Pennsylvania law allows for employees to be unnamed or referenced as a group in a complaint that alleges vicarious liability. The corporate negligence claim, according to Mr. Hurst, contains sufficient allegations to sustain his claim.

Turning to the substantive issues on appeal, the court examined the requirements for a cause of action for vicarious liability. To hold an employer vicariously liable, the court stated that the negligent acts of its employee must be committed during the course of and within the scope of the employment. Furthermore, the court stated that simply by having unnamed employees in the complaint, the plaintiff is not precluded from bringing an action for vicarious liability, if the employees were negligent during the course and within the scope of their employment.

The court stated that pleadings are intended to provide notice to the defendant of the claims upon which it will have to defend.  In a complaint, the paragraphs are to be read in context with all other allegations to determine whether the defendant has been provided adequate notice of the claim.

Here, the court found that Mr. Hurst had set forth the material allegations of negligence, the basis for his vicarious liability claims.  These included Mr. Denmark’s fall, his surgery, and the resulting failure to remove all of the gauze, eventually resulting in septic shock and death. While Mr. Hurst may not have identified all the names of those who provided related services in connection with Mr. Denmark’s care, these names are known to the hospital entities or could have been determined during the process of discovery. Therefore, read in the context of the allegations, the references to unnamed staff were not lacking in specificity, nor did they fail to plead a cause of action against the hospital.

Second, the court reviewed Mr. Hurst’s contention that it was error for the trial court to strike his corporate negligence claim against the hospital entities.  The appeal court agreed with the lower court that the complaint successfully alleged violations of the duties owed by the hospital to Mr. Denmark.  Mr. Hurst alleged that the hospital had actual or constructive knowledge of the defect in the procedure (stitching the gauze inside a patient) and that this negligence directly caused the injuries and death of Mr. Denmark. The appeals court held that the trial court’s order striking this allegation was in error.

The court reversed the order, in part, and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

This case demonstrates the importance of pleading a sufficient and detailed complaint, especially concerning negligence and wrongful death claims. At the Needle Law Firm, we represent clients in cases of wrongful death and offer a free consultation. Contact our office at 570-344-1266.

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