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Dead Man's Act Kills Plaintiff's Recovery (PA)

February 7, 2020

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<p style="text-align: justify;">Pennsylvania is a jurisdiction with a Dead Man's Act, which provides that “where any party to a thing ... is dead ... and his right thereto or therein has passed ... to a party ... who represents his interest ... any surviving or remaining party to such thing ... shall [not] be a competent witness to any matter occurring before the death of said party.” 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 5930. Under this Act, “surviving parties who have an interest which is adverse to [the] decedent's estate are disqualified from testifying as to any transaction or event which occurred before [the] decedent's death.” <em>Hera v. McCormick</em>, 425 Pa.Super. 432, 625 A.2d 682, 688 (1993).</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">In one recent decision, <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Jones-v-Plumer.pdf">Jones v. Plumer</a>,</em> the Superior Court of Pennsylvania applied that statute to award summary judgment to the estate of a deceased, alleged tortfeasor.  In <em>Jones, </em>the plaintiff, was a tenant in an apartment building owned by the defendant's decedent.  According to the plaintiff, she tripped on the premise’s steps and sustained injuries to her wrist.  Before suit was filed, the landlord passed away.  In the ensuing litigation, the plaintiff alleged that the landlord knew the front steps were unsafe and neglected to repair them in a reasonable and timely matter.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">However, the landlord's estate moved for summary judgement, arguing that Jones’ lacked evidence of causation, as the Dead Man’s Act left Jones unable to prove that the allegedly negligently maintained stairs caused her to fall.  In opposition, the plaintiff argued that the Dead Man's Act was not intended to apply to her situation because the landlord's estate admitted the landlord did not witness her fall, so he would not have been able to testify as to causation if he were alive. Thus, the plaintiff argued the landlord's death did not weaken the defense of this case.  The plaintiff also argued that her medical reports outlined the cause of her injuries by stating that she fell on stairs that had no railing.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The trial court granted Plumer’s motion for summary judgement and found that the Dead Man’s Act prohibited Jones from testifying about the cause of her fall, and as the only witness to her fall, Jones had no other means to establish the element of causation.   The Court reasoned that the although the legislature may not have intended the statute to apply in this situation, the plain text of the statute controlled.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Whatever one's view of Pennsylvania's Dead Man's Act, <em>Jones </em>is a reminder that many courts are inclined to defer to the legislature when it comes to legislating.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;"><span>Thanks to Emily Finnegan for her contribution to this post.  Please email <a href="mailto:mgauvin@wcmlaw.com">Mike Gauvin </a></span><span>with any questions.</span></p>

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