Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In Case of First Impression, Superior Court Holds Plaintiff May Withdraw Rule 1311.1 Stipulated Cap on Damages

Dolan v. Fissell, 2009 WL 1165394 (Pa.Super. May 1, 2009)

In a case of first impression, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that a stipulation entered into by the parties under Pa.R.C.P. 1311.1 limiting a plaintiff's maximum damages to $25,000 can be withdrawn by the plaintiff at the discretion of the court in certain circumstances.

Rule 1311.1 provides that, in a trial on appeal from an arbitration award, the plaintiff may enter into a stipulation to cap his or her damages at $25,000 in exchange for an agreement that the plaintiff may proceed to trial on expert reports in lieu of their testimony. The purpose of the Rule is to allow the plaintiff to avoid high expert witness fees in smaller cases. The Rule does not state whether or when such a stipulation can be withdrawn.

In the Dolan case, the plaintiff was injured in a car accident and eventually received an arbitration award in the amount of $28,220.00, from which the defendant filed an appeal. The plaintiff then filed a Rule 1311.1 stipulation to the court limiting her jury trial damages to $25,000 thereby allowing her to proceed on expert reports as opposed to testimony, thereby saving the plaintiff substantial costs at trial.

Plaintiff's counsel thereafter sought to withdraw the stipulation on the grounds that he was unaware that an approximately $8,200.00 property damage claim would have to be considered to be within the $25,000 cap. The trial court allowed the stipulation to be withdrawn over the defendants objection. The jury eventually whacked the defendant with a verdict in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $434,757.25. The defendant appealed on the primary grounds that the trial court erred in allowing the withdrawal of the stipulation.

On appeal, the Superior Court unanimously held that the trial court had the discretion to allow the plaintiff to withdraw the Rule 1311.1 stipulated cap on damages for good cause and provided that there was no substantial prejudice to the defendant. In this case, there was no prejudice to the defendant present as the trial court had continued the trial twice, in part, to provide the defense with an opportunity to fully prepare its case in light of the changed circumstances.

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