Defendant’s Motion To Amend Its Answer To Admit Averments It Previously Denied Two Years Previously Includes A Novel Attempt To Avoid Punitive Damages At Trial (PA)
A Lackawanna County judge has granted a defendant’s motion to amend his answer to admit averments that he had previously denied when filing the answer more than two years earlier. In Bellersen v. Gill, Plaintiff, Gina Bellersen, was injured in a rear- end, chain collision motor vehicle accident in October 2018. Defendant Gill was the last vehicle in the chain, and upon filing his initial answer in October 2019, Gill admitted the accident, but specifically denied that he “operated his vehicle in a negligent, careless, and reckless manner.”
Two years later, Gill moved to amend his answer paragraphs 17, 18, 31, and 320 of the Complaint “to admit that his failure to use due care while driving his vehicle … caused him to rear-end the vehicle in front of him, which in turn caused that vehicle to rear-end the vehicle [Bellersen] was driving, and further caused the front of [her] vehicle to hit the vehicle in front of her.” Gill also requested that the Order granting his motion to amend expressly state that his admissions to paragraphs 17, 18, 31, and 32 “shall not be used as an admission of any type of conduct which could serve as a basis for imposition of punitive or exemplary damages.” Apparently, given that Gill had started a chain-reaction collision, he hoped that conceding negligence might preclude the need for raising that issue a trial and thereby avoid the potential for punitive or exemplary damages.
Plaintiff opposed the motion to amend as untimely and objected to the inclusion of “unnecessary and prejudicial language” in the proposed Order. Judge Terrence R. Nealon rejected the untimeliness argument, noting that Rule 1033 imposed no time limit on amendments of a pleading. The prejudice sufficient to deny amendment of the pleadings must be more than an mere detriment to the other party. A delay of two years in seeking to amend a pleading, without more, does not furnish a sufficient basis for denying a motion to amend. Although Judge Nealon granted Gill’s motion to amend, he held that the request that Plaintiff be foreclosed from making any evidentiary use of those admissions in support of her punitive damages claim was not an appropriate consideration in seeking leave to amend under Rule 1033. Instead, the preclusion of evidence at trial is a proper subject for a motion in limine addressed to the trial judge.
Interestingly, although Judge Nealon refused to add the language requested by Defendant Gill, he did append a footnote to clarify that only factual admissions are treated as binding judicial admissions on a party. Factual admissions by Gill that he failed “to brake his vehicle,” “keep his eye on the roadway,” “inspect the vehicle,” “record his duty status,” and “stop for traffic ahead” and that he was speeding, texting, “using a cellular phone without a Bluetooth or hands-free device,” and fell “asleep while driving,” would constitute judicial admissions.. However, legal conclusions, such as his alleged negligence, carelessness, and recklessness, would not qualify as judicial admissions.
The import of this case is that a party may amended its pleadings at nearly any time during the pleadings with the consent of the other party or leave of court. The right to amend should be freely granted absent an error of law or resulting prejudice. The “resulting prejudice . . . must be something more than a detriment to the other party since any amendment almost certainly will be designed to strengthen the legal position of the amending party and correspondingly to weaken the position of the adverse party.”
Thanks to Jim Scott for his contribution to this article. Should you have any questions concerning this case, please contact Thomas Bracken.