United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
October 26, 2005.
LILLIAN GUERNSEY, by and through her Conservator, THOMAS ITTERLY, Plaintiff,
COUNTRY LIVING PERSONAL CARE HOME(S), INC., SHIRLEY D. SHERIDAN a/k/a SHIRLEY D. SHERRIDAN and SHIRLEY D. SHERIDAN a/k/a SHIRLEY D. SHERRIDAN d/b/a COUNTRY LIVING PERSONAL CARE HOME, Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: JAMES MUNLEY, District Judge
Before the court for disposition is the defendants' motion for
partial summary judgment. The plaintiff is Lillian Guernsey by
and through her Conservator, Thomas Itterley, ("Guernsey" or
"plaintiff") and the defendants are Country Living Personal Care
Home(s), Inc., Shirley D. Sheridan a/k/a Shirley d. Sherridan and
Shirley D. Sheridan a/k/a Shirley D. Sherridan d/b/a Country
Living Person Care Home (collectively referred to as "Country
Living" or "defendants"). Guernsey has brought suit to recover
damages for a sexual assault that she alleges took place at
Country Living while she was a resident there. The matter has been fully
briefed and is ripe for disposition.
The basic background facts are undisputed by the parties.
Defendant Country Living is a Pennsylvania corporation with the
designated purpose of operating a personal care home. The home is
located in Nicholson, Wyoming County, Pennsylvania, and its sole
owner is Defendant Shirley Sheridan. (Pl. Ex. A, Sheridan Dep. at
17). The home first opened in October of 2001 with Laura Wickizer
as the designated administrator. (Pl. Ex. C, Wickizer Dep. at 24,
31). Wickizer is licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of
Public Welfare as a personal care home administrator. (Pl. Ex. C,
Wickizer Dep. at 13).
Plaintiff Lillian Guernsey was a resident of Country Living in
Nicholson, Pennsylvania. At the relevant time, she was eighty-six
years of age, and had suffered from moderate dementia since at
least August 2000. Beginning on October 26, 2001, Daniel Statham
also resided at Country Living. Statham, a thirty-one year old
man, was on probation after serving six years in prison for
aggravated indecent assault. Statham is mentally retarded. (Pl.
Ex. C, Wickizer Dep. at 27-28). He was on probation for six
months for failing to provide his probation office with an
address in violation of "Megan's Law." (Def. Ex. L, Moser Dep. at
33-34, 43). Statham moved into the facility in October of 2001. On February 27, 2002, he
sexually assaulted Plaintiff Guernsey.
Subsequently, plaintiff filed the instant complaint alleging
the following four counts: 1) Negligence (against all defendants)
in, inter alia, failing to protect the plaintiff and properly
supervise her and Statham, 2) Negligence against Shirley Sheridan
individually; 3) Negligence, vicarious liability, against all
defendants; and 4) Negligence, independent liability, against the
businesses. (See Doc. 1, Compl.) Plaintiff seeks both
compensatory and punitive damages. Defendants have moved for
partial summary judgment. They seek judgment on the punitive
damages claim and the independent liability claim against the
Standard of review
Granting summary judgment is proper if the pleadings,
depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,
together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no
genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party
is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Knabe v.
Boury, 114 F.3d 407, 410 n. 4 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing FED. R.
CIV. P. 56(c)). "[T]his standard provides that the mere existence
of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not
defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary
judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of
material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,
477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original).
In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must
examine the facts in the light most favorable to the party
opposing the motion. International Raw Materials, Ltd. v.
Stauffer Chemical Co., 898 F.2d 946, 949 (3d Cir. 1990). The
burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that the evidence is
such that a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the
non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (1986). A fact is
material when it might affect the outcome of the suit under the
governing law. Id. Where the non-moving party will bear the
burden of proof at trial, the party moving for summary judgment
may meet its burden by showing that the evidentiary materials of
record, if reduced to admissible evidence, would be insufficient
to carry the non-movant's burden of proof at trial. Celotex v.
Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Once the moving party
satisfies its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party,
who must go beyond its pleadings, and designate specific facts by
the use of affidavits, depositions, admissions, or answers to
interrogatories showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.
Id. at 324.
Defendants move for judgment on plaintiff's claim for punitive
damages and on Count Four for independent liability against the
businesses. We will address these issues separately. I. Punitive Damages
Each count of plaintiff's complaint contains a claim for
punitive damages. Defendants assert that the evidence of record
does not support a claim for punitive damages. After a careful
review, we disagree with the defendants and shall deny summary
judgment on the punitive damages claims.
The standard governing the award of punitive damages
in Pennsylvania is settled. Punitive damages may be
awarded for conduct that is outrageous, because of
the defendant's evil motive or his reckless
indifference to the rights of others. . . . [W]hen
assessing the propriety of the imposition of punitive
damages, [t]he state of mind of the actor is vital.
The act, or the failure to act, must be intentional,
reckless or malicious.
Hutchison ex rel. Hutchison v. Luddy, 870 A.2d 766
, 770 (Pa.
2005) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).
Moreover, "in Pennsylvania, a punitive damages claim must be
supported by evidence sufficient to establish that (1) a
defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to
which the plaintiff was exposed and that (2) he acted, or failed
to act, as the case may be, in conscious disregard of that risk."
Id. at 772.
Plaintiff's position is that the defendants acted with reckless
indifference to her rights. Plaintiff asserts that the defendants
were aware that Daniel Statham had been convicted of a sex crime
before the attack on plaintiff. The record, in fact, contains evidence from which the jury could conclude that the defendants
were aware of Statham's history. (See, e.g., Pl. Ex. J, Hardy
Dep. at 11; Pl. Ex. C, Wickizer Dep. at 38). Plaintiff asserts
that despite this knowledge, defendants did nothing to further
investigate Statham's background, revisit the issue as to whether
he was an appropriate candidate for their personal care home, or
take steps to protect plaintiff, a defenseless eighty-six year
old woman with diminished mental capacity. Additionally, they did
not report the assault upon the plaintiff to authorities in a
timely manner even after Statham admitted it, and they failed to
provide timely medical attention. We find that this evidence, if
credited by the jury, could rise to the level of reckless
indifference to justify the imposition of punitive damages.
Accordingly, summary judgment will not be granted to the
defendant on the punitive damages claims.
II. Independent Liability
Count IV of plaintiff's complaint seeks to hold Country Living
independently liable for plaintiff's damages. Defendants have
moved for judgment on this count asserting that the facts of
record do not support an independent liability claim against
Country Living. After a careful review, we agree.
Independent liability, or corporate negligence, is a doctrine
under which a hospital is liable if it fails to uphold the
proper standard of care owed to a patient, which is to ensure the
patient's safety and well-being while hospitalized. Under this theory, a hospital owes a non-delegable duty directly to the
patient. Thompson v. Nason Hosp., 591 A.2d 703 (Pa. 1991).
Defendants' argument is that personal care homes are not
hospitals in that they do not provide health care services;
therefore, they are not subject to independent liability or
"corporate negligence" claims.
Plaintiff's position is that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has
extended the corporate negligence theory to include not only
hospitals but also HMO's. Their reasoning is that HMO's play a
central role in the total healthcare of their subscribers.
Shannon v. McNulty, 718 A.2d 828 (Pa.Super.Ct. 1998).
Plaintiff argues this theory of liability should therefore be
extended to personal care homes as they also provide for the
healthcare of their residents.
In support of her position, plaintiff cites Young v. Manor
Care Health Services, Inc., 2004 WL 953869 (E.D. Pa. 2004), a
case where the United States Court for the Eastern District of
Pennsylvania held that it is conceivable that a nursing home
could be responsible for a resident's "total healthcare" and
corporate negligence could apply. Young, however, was dealing
with a motion to dismiss. The court was speaking in the abstract
when it discussed the fact that a nursing home could possibly be
held liable under the corporate negligence theory. The standard
for a motion to dismiss is much more liberal than the summary
judgment standard. At this stage, the plaintiff must produce
evidence that Country Living was responsible for Guernsey's total healthcare. Plaintiff has not presented such evidence.
The evidence examined in Shannon, which extended corporate
liability to HMO's indicated that HMO's involve themselves in
many of their subscribers health care decisions. As a result
HMO's "affect the length of hospital stays, restrict the use of
specialists, prohibit or limit post hospital care, restrict
access to therapy or prevent rendering emergency case."
Shannon, 718 A.2d at 835.
Plaintiff has not presented evidence that the defendants were
involved in plaintiff's healthcare in the instant case.
Plaintiff's position is that a comprehensive regulatory scheme
governs the conduct of personal care homes, and corporate
negligence should apply. We disagree. Based upon the cases cited
above, to determine if corporate negligence applies, the
Pennsylvania courts examine the role that the institution plays
in the healthcare of the individual, not whether the institution
is subject to a regulatory scheme. In the instant case, plaintiff
has not presented evidence that the personal care home was
responsible for plaintiff's total healthcare. If any healthcare
was needed they had simply to call a doctor or hospital.
Therefore, we find that the defendants were not central to
plaintiff's healthcare. Accordingly, corporate negligence does
For the foregoing reasons, the defendants' motion for summary
judgment will be granted in part and denied in part. It will be denied with
respect to punitive damages and granted with respect to corporate
negligence. Therefore, remaining in the case are plaintiffs
claims for: 1) Negligence (against all defendants) in, inter
alia, failing to protect the plaintiff and properly supervise
her and Statham, 2) Negligence against Shirley Sheridan
individually; and 3) Negligence, vicarious liability, against all
defendants. In addition, the punitive damages claim remains in
each count. An appropriate order follows. ORDER
AND NOW, to wit, this 26th day of October 2005, the
defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. 64) is GRANTED
with respect to the plaintiff's claim of independent liability.
The motion is DENIED in all other respects.
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