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The Pennsylvania Superior Court Revisits The Standards For Nursing Home Negligence, Vicarious Liability, And Punitive Damage Claims

In Breslin v. Mountain View Nursing Home, Inc., 2017 WL 4296241, (September 28, 2017), the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order dismissing the Plaintiff’s amended complaint seeking negligence and punitive damages.  In this case, Plaintiff’s decedent developed multiple Grade III and/or Grade IV pressure ulcers.  Plaintiff filed an amended complaint alleging corporate negligence based on the breach of non-delegable duties, vicarious liability, and punitive damages.

The trial court held that non-delegable duties, which are applicable in hospital negligence actions,  did not extend to Plaintiff’s allegations in this nursing home negligence action.  The theory of non-delegable duties was adopted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Thompson v. Nason Hosp., 527 Pa. 330, 591 A.2d 703 (1991).  In Thompson, the Court held that the hospital owed a non-delegable duty of care toward a patient of a doctor with staff privileges.  In particular, the Court held that the hospital “owed a non-delegable duty directly to the patient to observe, supervise, or control his/her treatment approved by multiple physicians; to apply and enforce its consultation and monitoring procedures; and to ensure the patient’s safety and well-being while at the hospital.”

The  Court extended the theory of Corporate non-delegable duties to nursing homes in Scampone v. Highland Park Care LTC, 618 Pa. 363, 57 A.3d 582 (2012).  In Scampone, the Court held that a five-prong analysis set forth in Althaus v. Cohen, 562 Pa. 547, 756 A.2d 1166, 1139 (200) must be applied.  Under this analysis, the court must consider: “(1) the relationship between the parties; (2) the social utility of the actor’s conduct; (3) the nature of the risk imposed and foreseeability of the harm incurred; (4) the consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor; and (5) the overall public interest in the proposed solution.”

In the present case, the Superior Court noted that the trial court acknowledged its duty to analyze and apply these factors, but failed to do so.  When the Superior Court applied these factors to the allegations in Plaintiff’s amended complaint, it found that they weigh in favor of imposing a non-delegable duty on the part of the Defendant.

In addition, the Superior Court found that the trial court erred in granting Defendant’s preliminary objections to Plaintiff’s claims of vicarious liability.  The trial court granted Defendant’s preliminary objections because the Plaintiff’s failed to identify by name any nurses, doctors, or staff who were allegedly responsible for decedent’s harm.  However, in Sokolsky  v. Eidelman, 93 A.3d 858, 866 (Pa. Super. 2014), the Superior Court held that it is not necessary for a plaintiff to establish a right to recover on a claim for vicarious liability based upon the negligence of a specifically named employee.  Thus, the Superior Court reversed the trial court dismissal of Plaintiff’s vicarious liability claim.

The Superior Court also considered the trial court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages.  Plaintiff alleged that Defendant “affirmatively chose to operate its facility so as to maximize profits and/or excess revenues at the expense of the care required to be provided to its patients …. [and that it] intentionally and recklessly mismanaged and/or reduced staffing levels below the level necessart to provide adequate care and supervision of its patients….”  The Superior Court held that it cannot say with certainty that, upon the facts averred, no reasonable inference from those facts supports an award of punitive damages.  Thus it reversed the trial court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages.

Before Moulton, Solano and Musmanno, JJ.  Opinion by Musmanno, J.

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