Thursday, July 25, 2019

Allegations of Liability of Unnamed Agents, Recklessness, and Punitive Damages Allowed to Proceed in a Podiatric Malpractice Action

In the case of Latka v. Rieder, No. 2019-CV-2078 (C.P. Lacka. Co. July 22, 2019 Nealon, J.), the court addressed Preliminary Objections filed in a podiatric malpractice case.  The Defendant sought to strike the agency allegations for failing to identify the actual or ostensible agents by name along with other details.  The Preliminary Objections were also asserted against the Plaintiff’s allegations of recklessness and reckless indifference along with the claim for punitive damages.

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiff developed an infection after a foot surgery performed by the Defendant.   Treatment of the infection included a partial amputation.  

The Plaintiff sued the podiatrist in a malpractice action and also asserted claims against “the agents, ostensible agents, servants, workers and/or employees” of the podiatrist.   Additionally, in her prayer for relief, the Plaintiff sought to recover punitive damages based upon allegations of recklessness.  

The Defendant podiatrist filed Preliminary Objections seeking to strike the Plaintiff’s agency allegations, recklessness allegations and punitive damages claims as lacking sufficient factual specificity.

Judge Terrence R. Nealon
Lackawanna County
In his Opinion, Judge Nealon reviewed the law establishing Pennsylvania as a fact-pleadings state but not requiring that all evidence in support of a claim be set forth in the Complaint.

The court noted that , in the context of Preliminary Objections asserting the lack of sufficient specificity, the test is whether the Defendant has been provided with adequate notice of the claim against which it must defend.  

With regards to the Plaintiff’s general agency complaints against unnamed agents and employees of the named Defendant, the court noted that, under current Pennsylvania appellate law, the failure to identify a Defendant’s agent by name, or the designation of those individuals as a unit, does not justify striking agency allegations in a Complaint.  Judge Nealon also noted that the Defendant’s efforts to strike agency claims for failing to identify the actual or ostensible agents by name in medical malpractice actions has been consistently rejected in Lackawanna County (citing numerous cases).  

In the end, the court noted that the names and responsibilities of the Defendant’s alleged agents can be ascertained during discovery. As such, the Preliminary Objections in this regard were denied.

Relative to the Plaintiff’s allegations of recklessness and the Plaintiff’s punitive damages claims, the court emphasized that punitive damages are only appropriate when an individual’s actions are of such outrageous nature as to demonstrate intentional, willful, wanton, or reckless conduct.   

The court noted that wanton or reckless conduct covers instances where the actor has intentionally done an act or an unreasonable character in disregard of a risk known to him or her or so obvious that he or she must be taken to have been aware of it, and so great as to make it highly probable that harm would result.   The court otherwise noted that allegations of merely negligence or even gross negligence, do not suffice to support a punitive damages claim.   

Judge Nealon turned to Pa. R.C.P. 1019(b), along with case law construing that Rule, to support a conclusion that recklessness is a condition of the mind that may be averred generally in pleadings in appropriate circumstances.

Judge Nealon went on to cite numerous Lackawanna County cases in which Preliminary Objections seeking to dismiss punitive damages claims on the basis of factual insufficiency have been uniformly rejected except in cases where the Complaint generally alleged willfulness, wantonness, or recklessness without supporting facts.   

After a review of the allegations in the Complaint in this matter, the court overruled the Defendant’s Preliminary Objections to the Plaintiff’s allegations of reckless conduct and the Plaintiff’s related claim for punitive damages. 

The court noted that the Defendant retained the right to challenge the validity of these claims by way of a Motion for Summary Judgment.   

The court additionally emphasized that the Plaintiff may not obtain any financial worth discovery from the Defendant doctor under Pa. R.C.P. 4003.7 unless and until the Plaintiff demonstrated a prima facie right to recover punitive damages.  

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.

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