Pennsylvania Superior Court Holds that Plaintiffs Have Wide Latitude in Choosing Legal Theories
On July 20, 2020, the Pennsylvania Superior Court granted a new trial after finding that a plaintiff was improperly precluded from pursuing all possible legal theories available to her.
Adrienne Lageman filed a complaint for medical negligence after she suffered a stroke while undergoing a medical procedure at York Hospital. She alleged that the defendant anesthesiologist John Zepp improperly placed a central line into her jugular vein, which caused a stroke.
In making out her prima facie case of negligence, Lageman advanced two theories. First, she argued that defendant Zepp was negligent for using a short-axis ultrasound to place the central line. Second, Lageman sought to avail herself of the inference afforded by the evidentiary doctrine of res ipsa loquitor, meaning literally, “the thing speaks for itself.” Prior to submission of the case to the jury, Lageman presented a proposed jury charge based on res ipsa loquitor. However, the trial court refused to give a res ipsa instruction because, it determined, the case was not one where it was “obvious” a res ipsa instruction applied. “Thus, the jury was not instructed that it was permitted to infer the harm suffered by Ms. Lageman was caused by defendant Zepp’s negligence.”
The Pennsylvania Superior Court found that the trial court improperly refused to give the jury a res ipsa instruction and granted Lageman a new trial. The court reasoned that Lageman showed the three required elements for res ipsa and, although it may not have been obvious, the trial court should have instructed the jury to consider the theory. Accordingly, the court reversed the trial court’s decision and granted a new trial.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in Lageman demonstrates the wide latitude that Pennsylvania courts give to plaintiffs in choosing what legal theory to pursue. Although res ipsa was not obvious—or even likely—the court granted plaintiff a new trial because plaintiff should have had the opportunity to pursue the theory. The Lageman decision is a reminder for defendants that just because a plaintiff’s legal theory is not perfect, it does not mean the plaintiff cannot pursue it.
Thanks to John Lang for his contribution to this post. Please contact Heather Aquino with any questions.