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Pennsylvania Superior Court Remands for New Trial as Plaintiff Demonstrated Sufficient Evidence of Causation

Recently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed and remanded a case involving an underlying negligence action. In this case, Darrin Ulmer appealed the trial court’s entry of a nonsuit. He also challenged other procedural and evidentiary rulings in favor of L.F. Driscoll Company and Philadelphia D&M.

Mr. Ulmer’s employer, an elevator corporation, was a hired subcontractor. They moved elevator doors to upper floors in a new building. Upon moving elevator doors that had been laid vertically, Mr. Ulmer titled a door, and the bottom of it fell to the ground, injuring him.

Mr. Ulmer brought a negligence action against Driscoll Company, and Driscoll joined D&M as a third-party defendant. Driscoll filed motions to exclude evidence relating to the lack of availability of an exterior hoist to move the elevators, and to prevent Mr. Ulmer’s expert from testifying about the floor covering that lay underneath the elevator doors. The trial court granted these motions.

After Mr. Ulmer presented his case-in chief at trial, the court granted Driscoll Company’s motion for nonsuit, on the ground that Mr. Ulmer did not establish the elements of a negligence claim.

The appellate court stated the rule that a plaintiff may recover directly from an additional defendant when the facts show that the defendant is liable to the plaintiff either solely or jointly with the original defendant. But this rule does not apply when the statute of limitations for the plaintiff to file suit has run.

Mr. Ulmer argues that the trial court, by permitting Driscoll to assert third-party claims against D&M, rejected D&M’s allegation that those claims were untimely. The appellate court rejected this claim and stated that a defendant may add third-party defendants despite the tolling of the plaintiff’s statute of limitations on the underlying claim.

The appellate court addressed Mr. Ulmer’s argument that the trial court erroneously entered a nonsuit at the close of his case-in-chief and refused to remove the nonsuit upon his filing a motion to do so. But the judge made clear that the evidence Mr. Ulmer presented demonstrated only that an accident occurred. The jury was left to speculate as to causation.

On appeal, the court will reverse an order denying a motion to remove a nonsuit only if the trial court abused its discretion or committed an error of law. If the plaintiff has not introduced sufficient evidence to show the elements of a negligence cause of action, it is the responsibility of the trial court to make a determination before submitting the case to a jury. The plaintiff is given the benefit of the facts and inferences from the evidence.

Here, the court stated that the issue is whether Mr. Ulmer demonstrated a causal link between Driscoll Company’s actions and his own injuries. The court stated that reasonable minds could differ regarding whether Mr. Ulmer’s injury was caused by Driscoll’s decision to store the elevator doors vertically, on a floor covered with panels, and whether or not the panels failed and caused the injury. The court looked at the testimony of a representative of D&M and determined that the jury could have understood the testimony to support the inference that the panels contributed to Mr. Ulmer’s injury.

The court held that Mr. Ulmer presented sufficient evidence to present to the jury the issue of causation. The jury could have concluded that the flooring was improper and that Mr. Ulmer’s injuries were caused by the failure of the floor panels. The trial court erred in entering and refusing to remove the nonsuit against Mr. Ulmer.

The court stated that it must remand for a new trial. The court reviewed the trial court’s grant of motions in limine, particularly the exclusion of evidence showing the lack of availability of an exterior host to move the elevator doors. The issue is whether the lack of availability of exterior hoists was a proximate cause of Mr. Ulmer’s injuries. The court held it was not a proximate cause, since it was too remote as a matter of law to make Driscoll Company legally responsible for the injuries.

Finally, the court reviewed Mr. Ulmer’s allegation that the trial court erred in granting the motion to exclude his witness from testifying about the floor covering and its movement and fitness for its purpose. The rule is that expert testimony must be specific to the subject matter at issue. While Driscoll argued there were no scientific explanations set forth in his expert’s testimony, there was a reliance on industry standards. The appellate court held that the expert should be permitted to offer his opinions, to the extent they are based on construction industry experience and knowledge. This would show whether there was a breach of the industry standard relating to the use of the floor panels.

The court reversed and remanded for a new trial.

In this case of an underlying negligence action, the court addressed numerous procedural and evidentiary issues. At Needle Law, we provide diligent and experienced litigation for personal injury victims. Contact us at 570-344-1266 for a free consultation.

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