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Piehl v. City of Philadelphia

December 28, 2009

LINDA PIEHL AND WILLIAM PIEHL, HUSBAND AND WIFE
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA AND COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA,
APPEAL OF: COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA



Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered July 27, 2007 at No. 368 C.D. 2006 Reversing and Remanding the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Civil Division, at No. 318 March Term 2005 930 A.2d 607 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Baer

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, GREENSPAN, JJ.

ARGUED: October 22, 2008

OPINION

We granted allowance of appeal in this case to determine whether the Commonwealth Court erred by reversing the trial court and concluding that it should have permitted the Appellees, Linda and William Piehl (hereinafter "Piehls"), plaintiffs below, to amend the caption to their complaint alleging negligence against the City of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania after the statute of limitations had expired to include the Department of Transportation where, in the caption, the complaint named only the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania generally as a defendant, but where, in the body of the complaint, the Department of Transportation (hereinafter "DOT") was named as a defendant. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the Commonwealth Court properly allowed Piehls to amend the caption to their complaint to include DOT as a defendant in the case.

The facts are as follows. On March 8, 2005, Piehls commenced the present action by filing a complaint in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. The caption of the complaint named the City of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as defendants.*fn1 Next to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in the caption, Piehls indicated its address as follows: "1400 Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia, PA 19130." The body of the complaint, in paragraph 4, indicated as follows:

4. Defendant, Department of Transportation of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, (hereinafter referred to as "Defendant Commonwealth") is a governmental agency with a principal place of business at 1400 Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia, PA 19130.

March, 8, 2005 Complaint at ¶ 4. In keeping with this noted shorthand for DOT, the body of the complaint referred to DOT throughout as "Defendant Commonwealth." Specifically, the complaint thereafter alleged that Mrs. Piehl suffered an injury in the form of two broken ankles on March 13, 2003, when she slipped and fell while disembarking from a SEPTA bus near the corner of Allegheny and Aramingo Avenue in Philadelphia as a result of stepping onto a large uneven portion of the roadway. The complaint further alleged that the incident occurred because of the improper design, construction, deterioration and defects in the area where it appeared that repairs to the roadway had been initiated but never completed. Thus, according to the complaint, the fall and resulting injuries were the result of the negligence of "the Defendants City and Commonwealth" because of their failure to maintain the area in a safe condition. As is relevant here, the complaint was served on both the Department of Transportation and the Office of the Attorney General.*fn2

On March 22, 2005, after the March 13, 2005 statute of limitations expired for Piehls' tort action and despite the fact that the Office of the Attorney General is charged with representing Commonwealth agencies such as DOT pursuant to 71 P.S. §732-204(c), the Office of the Attorney General filed an answer and new matter to the complaint solely on behalf of the Commonwealth.*fn3 In the answer, regarding the referenced defendants, the Attorney General indicated "admitted" to the reference to the City of Philadelphia as a defendant in paragraph 3. Regarding paragraph 4 of the complaint naming DOT as a defendant, the Attorney General indicated that the allegations in this paragraph of the complaint "constitute conclusions of law to which no pleading is required." and "to the extent that portions of this paragraph could be construed as factual allegations, [ ] strict proof thereof is [ ] demanded at the time of trial." March 22, 2005 Answer at ¶ 4. The balance of the answer denied the substantive allegations regarding negligence set forth in the complaint that were addressed to DOT, referred to throughout the complaint as the "Defendant Commonwealth." In new matter, the Attorney General alleged, inter alia, that the Commonwealth, as a sovereign entity, was immune from suit pursuant to 1 Pa.C.S. § 2310.*fn4

Thereafter, on April 20, 2005, the Attorney General filed "Defendant Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings," asserting that it was entitled to judgment in its favor based upon sovereign immunity as specified in 1 Pa.C.S. § 2310. The Attorney General recognized that the body of the complaint named DOT, a Commonwealth agency as a defendant, but noted that the caption only named the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.*fn5 Thus, it asserted that only the caption to a complaint is relevant in determining the parties to the lawsuit and because the caption named only the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, judgment in its favor was warranted, as it was immune from liability.

In their response and memorandum of law in opposition to the Attorney General's motion for judgment on the pleadings, Piehls noted that their intent was to sue DOT, a Commonwealth agency, as indicated in the body of their complaint, and that the omission of DOT in the caption, and the inclusion, instead, of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, was an inadvertent clerical error. Further, Piehls pointed out that the Attorney General, in its answer to the complaint, did not specifically deny the allegation in paragraph 4 of the complaint naming DOT as a defendant, therefore, they claimed this allegation was deemed admitted pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. No. 1029(b) (providing that averments to which a responsive pleading is required are deemed admitted when not denied specifically).*fn6 Thus, Piehls maintained that DOT, who was served with the complaint along with the Attorney General, was put on notice of the claims against it and was not prejudiced by the inadvertent typographical error of naming only the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the caption. Finally, citing to our case of Bata v. Central Penn National Bank of Philadelphia, 293 A.2d 343 (Pa. 1972), Piehls noted that where a defect in a party's pleading can be cured by amendment, a motion for judgment on the pleading should be denied and the amendment should be permitted. Thus, in addition to seeking the trial court's dismissal of the Attorney General's motion for judgment on the pleadings, Piehls requested that they be permitted to amend the caption of their complaint to include DOT.

The trial court, by order dated May 23, 2005, granted the Attorney General's motion for judgment on the pleadings and dismissed Piehls' complaint. In its 1925(a) opinion in support of its decision, the trial court concluded that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, sued by Piehls as set forth in the caption to their complaint, was immune from suit and, therefore, judgment in its favor was warranted. The court declined to address whether amendment of the caption was appropriate as it did not view such issue as encompassed within the Commonwealth's motion for judgment on the pleadings. In this regard, however, the court stated that it could not infer Piehls' intentions regarding who should have been sued, rather, the court concluded that the suit was against the Commonwealth, as specified in the caption, and that the Commonwealth was entitled to dismissal of the suit against it based upon immunity.

Piehls appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which reversed the trial court's decision. At the outset, the court noted that Pa.R.C.P. No. 1033 permits a party to correct the name of an adverse party or amend a pleading at any time either by consent of the adverse party or by leave of court.*fn7 The court noted that amendment, pursuant to this rule, is permitted even after the statute of limitations has run. Piehl v. City of Philadelphia, 930 A.2d 607, 611 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2007). The court, likewise, acknowledged the well-settled principle that a new party may not be brought into an action after the statute of limitations has expired. Id. (citing Cianchetti v. Kaylan, 361 A.2d 842 (Pa. Super. 1976)). In looking at these two competing principles, the court noted that the test for determining whether amendment to correct the name of a party should be permitted is whether the right party was sued but under a wrong designation, or whether the wrong party was sued and the amendment was designed to substitute another distinct party. Id. (citing Gozdonovic v. Pleasant Hills Realty Co., 53 A.2d 73 (Pa. 1947)(permitting a plaintiff to amend a complaint to change the description of an entity from a corporation to a partnership after the statute of limitations expired)).

Recognizing that many of the cases permitting amendment of pleadings after the statute of limitations has expired arose in cases where a party's business designation was sought to be changed,*fn8 the court turned to examining cases ...


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