Monday, May 21, 2018

Recklessness Allegations Allowed To Stand in MVA Case Where Plaintiff Confirms No Punitive Sought

In the recent Northampton County Court of Common Pleas decision of Nolen v. Esken, No. C-48-CV-2018-0385 (C.P. North. Co. March 28, 2018 Beltrami, J.), the court overruled a Defendant’s Preliminary Objections to allegations of recklessness contained in a Plaintiff’s motor vehicle accident Complaint.  

According to the Opinion, in their Complaint, the Plaintiffs alleged recklessness on the grounds that the Defendant was speeding at the time of the accident, ran a red light, and collided with the Plaintiff’s vehicle.  

In Preliminary Objections, the Defendant moved to strike the allegations of recklessness and other related terms from the Plaintiffs’ Complaint, arguing that the Complaint failed to set forth facts to support such allegations.   The Defendant asserted this objection under Pa.R.C.P. 1028(a)(2), which allows for Preliminary Objections on the grounds of inclusion of impertinent matter in a Complaint.   

The court noted that, under Pennsylvania law, to be impertinent, the allegations must be immaterial to the proof of the cause of the action.  The court also noted that, only where an allegation is wholly irrelevant to the action and cannot influence the result will such allegations be deemed to be impertinent.   The court also noted that the right of a trial court to strike impertinent matters should be sparingly exercise under Pennsylvania law and utilized only when a party can show prejudice.   See Op. at 2. 

In response to the Preliminary Objections, Plaintiffs argued that they had not claimed punitive damages and have only alleged “recklessness” in their Complaint in order to attempt to preclude the Defendant from raising arguments of comparative negligence in the case.   The Plaintiff was relying upon the case of Krivijanski v. Union R. Co., 515 A.2d 933, 936 (Pa. Super. 1986), in which the Pennsylvania Superior Court held “that when willful or wanton misconduct is involved, comparative negligence should not be applied.”  

Judge Beltrami ruled that, given that the Plaintiffs were not seeking punitive damages, and given that the Plaintiffs stated reason for pleading “recklessness” and other related terms under the law of the Krivijanski holding, such allegations in this matter could indeed serve to influence the case and were, therefore, not impertinent.   

The court also felt that the Defendants would not be prejudice by the allegations given that the Plaintiff had not claimed punitive damages.  

I send thanks to Attorney Ed Shaughnessy of Shaughnessy Law Office in Easton, Pennsylvania for bringing this case to my attention.  

Anyone wishing to review this case may click this LINK.

Commentary:  Defense litigators should beware of allowing allegations of recklessness to stand without challenge, even where Plaintiff asserts that they are not claiming punitive damages, as such allegations may leave the door open for the Plaintiff to amend the Complaint later in the litigation to then include punitive damages.   Apparently, this potential prospect was not argued or considered in this particular case. 

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