Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A Middle of The Road Decision on the Split of Authority on Pleading Recklessness

In the case of Seber v. Kline, No. CI-20-03109 (C.P. Lanc. Co. July 1, 2020 Brown, J.), the court sustained Preliminary Objections filed by a Defendant to allegations of recklessness and also struck a punitive damages claim from the matter in a case involving a motor vehicle accident. 
According to the Opinion, this matter involved a rear-end accident. 

When the Plaintiff filed suit, the Plaintiff included allegations of recklessness in the Complaint and also requested punitive damages as part of the gross negligence/recklessness claim. 

In response, the defense filed Preliminary Objections seeking to strike the allegations of gross negligence and recklessness in this rear-end accident case, as well as seeking to dismiss the claim for punitive damages. 

In his Opinion, Judge Brown cited to the case of Archibald v. Kemble, 971 A.2d 513, 519 (Pa. Super. 2009), appeal denied, 989 A.2d 914 (Pa. 2010) for the proposition that, under Pennsylvania tort law, recklessness is subsumed by and sounds in negligence. Judge Brown noted that the Superior Court in Archibald stated that, “even though we hold [the Plaintiff] must prove [the Defendant] acted recklessly, the cause of action remains, sounding in negligence.” 

Judge Brown also separately acknowledged that recklessness may be pled generally under Pa. R.C.P. 1019(b) as a condition of the mind. 

However, Judge Brown went on to note that there are “Two distinct types of recklessness. The first allows for punitive damages, and the second does not.” 

The court noted that the first type of recklessness, which may support claims of punitive damages, involve cases where the actor knows, or has reason to know of facts which create a high degree of risk of harm to another, and the actor still deliberately proceeds to act, or fails to act, in conscious disregard of, or indifference in that that risk. 

The court in this Seber case noted that the second type of recklessness is “where the actor has such knowledge or reason to know the facts, but does not realize or appreciate the high degree of risk involved, although a reasonable man in his position would do so.” 

Judge Brown noted that, although claims of recklessness may be pled generally under the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure, the words ‘reckless’ ‘indifferent’ ‘willful’ ‘wanton,’ ‘willful misconduct,’ ‘wanton misconduct,’ and other similar words were "legally insufficient to support a demand for punitive damages" under the facts at issue in this case. See Op. at p. 4. 

More specifically, the court ruled that in this matter that the facts alleged by the Plaintiff in a matter involving a standard rear-end accident “are legally insufficient to support a demand for punitive damages.” See Op. at p. 4.  More specifically, Judge Brown ruled that “[e]ven when read in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, no facts averred in the Complaint point to this being a case of more than mere negligence.” 

The court went on to note that the facts pled do not point to conduct that is malicious, wanton, reckless, willful, oppressive, or outrageous. The court additionally found that the facts stated in the Complaint failed to point to any state of mind that was intentional, reckless, or malicious. 

Rather, the court found that the facts pled in this simple rear-end accident case are the same types of facts used to support a showing of mere negligence only. As such, the court granted the Defendant’s Preliminary Objections to the claims of recklessness, gross negligence, and for punitive damages and struck them from the Complaint without leave to amend.

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

I send thanks to Attorney Kevin T. McGarry of the Lancaster, Pennsylvania office of Post & Schell, P.C. for bringing this case to my attention.

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