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Pennsylvania Superior Court Upholds Student’s Recovery Against University in Slip and Fall Case

Property owners, including colleges and universities, must use reasonable care in maintaining their premises. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently affirmed a decision in favor of a student who slipped and fell backwards while descending an exterior flight of stairs on campus. She brought a lawsuit against the university, alleging negligence. Both sides presented evidence at trial, including liability experts who testified about particular circumstances surrounding the fall, including the amount of tread on the stairs, the length of side handrails, and the slope of the stairs.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of the injured student in the amount of $725,000.00. But the jury also found the student 10% negligent and reduced her recovery accordingly. The university appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in denying its motion for a new trial and/or remittitur, which is an order by the judge lowering the amount of damages awarded.

On appeal, the Superior Court reviewed the university’s three main claims:  1) prejudicial error resulted from the trial court’s evidentiary rulings; 2) reversible error occurred, based on the charge to the jury; and 3) the jury verdict was plainly excessive and exorbitant. The Superior Court made clear that there must be a manifest abuse of discretion to reverse an evidentiary trial court decision. And to show reversible error, the evidentiary ruling must be harmful or prejudicial to the complaining party.

Regarding testimony presented at trial, the court held it was admissible for the student to call the housekeeping employee to testify as a lay witness. The court stated the rule that a lay witness may testify if their opinion is “rationally based on the witness’s perception” and helpful, but not based on scientific or other specialized knowledge. Here, the lay witness had personal knowledge of the external steps because part of his job responsibilities included monitoring the condition of external staircases on the campus.  The court also found that the testimony of a doctor concerning the student’s “future harm” and medical prognosis was relevant and admissible in a determination of damages.

Turning to the jury charge, the court found no merit in the university’s claim that it should be afforded a new trial based on the lower court’s refusal of all 38 points of charge. The university argued that the jury did not hear their points regarding weather, landowner liability, and speculative evidence, among other things. The court found the university made no claim of prejudice resulting from this denial, and therefore no relief was due. And the court found that the jury was properly instructed on negligence, not strict liability. Here, the record showed that the jury was instructed on the university’s duty as a property owner to the student, an invitee.

Finally, the university claimed the jury verdict was plainly excessive and exorbitant. They based this conclusion on the student’s trial expert, who noted her injury had resolved and she had returned to her usual jobs within months of the incident. The verdict, the university argued, exceeded the student’s out-of-pocket expenses, demand for compensation, and medical expenses.

But the court held that the grant or refusal of a new trial because of the excessiveness of a verdict is for the trial court to determine. The reviewing court asks whether the trial court abused its discretion or committed an error of law. A verdict is not excessive unless it is so grossly excessive as to shock our sense of justice. The court listed factors to be considered when reviewing a verdict:  the severity of the injury, whether the injury is manifested by objective physical evidence or the subjective testimony of the plaintiff, whether the plaintiff is permanently affected, and whether the plaintiff can continue work.

Here, the objective evidence showed a severe injury. The student required multiple surgeries. She will likely require future medical intervention, and while she eventually returned to work, she was bedridden for weeks. The court found that the verdict, which included delay damages, compensated the student for her expenses, injuries, pain and suffering, and risk of future harm.  And the verdict did not shock the Court’s sense of justice when considering these factors.

The court found no merit to the university’s arguments that the trial court erred in its evidentiary rulings, its charge to the jury, and its denial of remittitur. The verdict was affirmed, with a mathematical error in costs corrected.

This case demonstrates the importance of presenting facts and evidence in a compelling manner.  At Needle Law, P.C., our attorneys can evaluate your premises liability case and help you recover the damages you deserve.  Contact the office at570-344-1266 or via the online form.

More Blog Posts:

Superior Court of Pennsylvania Allows Injured Man to Continue Slip and Fall Suit, Scranton Personal Injury Blog, February 21, 2015

Slip and Fall Lawsuit – Duties Related to Icy Sidewalks in PA, Scranton Personal Injury Blog, February 21, 2014

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