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Jones v. Plumer

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

January 15, 2020


          Appeal from the Order Entered, May 8, 2019, in the Court of Common Pleas of Venango County, Civil Division at No(s): 2018-00015.



          KUNSELMAN, J.

         Jessica Jones, appeals from the order granting summary judgment to Marie H. Plumer (the administratrix of the Estate of James J. Stover). Ms. Jones initiated this action, because she fell down the stairs at a property she leased from Mr. Stover and injured her wrist. Based on the Dead Man's Act, the trial court properly held that Ms. Jones could not testify against her now-deceased landlord's estate. In addition, the administratrix did not waive the Act's protections, nor has Ms. Jones produced any competent evidence to prove what caused her to fall. We therefore affirm.

         Ms. Jones was a tenant at Mr. Stover's property. She claims she tripped on the premise's poorly maintained steps, which led down from a porch on the side of the building. The steps had no railing, and when Ms. Jones was about to walk down the steps, she alleges that "the heel of her shoe caught the top of the riser [which] improperly projected beyond the top-step nosing." Complaint at 2. Extending her arm to break her fall, Ms. Jones struck her hand on the concrete below and broke several bones. Surgery was needed to repair the fractures.

         The landlord died about a year later, before Ms. Jones filed her lawsuit, so she sued the administratrix of Mr. Stover's estate to recover for her injuries. In her Complaint, Ms. Jones alleged that Mr. Stover knew his front steps were unsafe but neglected to repair them in a reasonable and timely manner. The administratrix eventually moved for summary judgment.

         For purposes of that motion, the parties agreed that the property's steps were poorly maintained, that Mr. Stover knew of the defects, and that he failed to make the requisite repairs. Thus, whether Ms. Jones had produced enough evidence to give rise to factual questions on the issues of duty and breach was not in dispute for purposes of summary judgment.

         Instead, the administratrix attacked Ms. Jones' lack of evidence of causation. She claimed that the only witness to the fall - i.e., Ms. Jones - was incompetent to testify regarding causation under the Dead Man's Act and this left Ms. Jones unable to prove that the negligently maintained stairs caused her to fall. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment. This timely appeal followed.

Ms. Jones presents one issue for our review:
Whether the lower court erred when it granted [the administratrix's] Motion for Summary Judgment, applying the Dead Man's Act to bar the testimony of [Ms. Jones], and finding that there were no other means through which [Ms. Jones] might establish the element of causation, in a premises liability claim?

         Ms. Jones' Brief at 5. Ms. Jones then argues that issue as three sub-issues in her brief, which we have reordered for ease of disposition:

1. The trial court committed reversible error when it broadly applied the Dead Man's Act to entirely bar the testimony of [Ms. Jones'], including testimony as to causation.
2. The trial court committed reversible error when it found that [the administratrix] had not waived the protections of the Dead Man's Act, and that thus the Dead Man's Act barred [Ms. Jones] from testifying (rendering her unable to prove the element of causation).
3. The trial court committed reversible error when it found that the statements of [Ms. Jones'] medical providers were insufficient to permit a reasonable jury to find for [Ms. Jones] on the issue of causation.

         Ms. Jones' Brief at 11, 19, 23.

         When reviewing a trial court's order granting summary judgment, which awards a party judgment as a matter of law, our scope of review is plenary, and our standard of review is de novo. See Summers v. Certainteed Corp., 997 A.2d 1152 (Pa. 2010).

         Here, the trial court concluded that Ms. Jones' evidence at the close of discovery was legally insufficient to make a prima facie case of negligence against her late landlord. The "elements of negligence are: a duty to conform to a certain standard for the protection of others against unreasonable risks; the defendant's failure to conform to that standard; a causal connection between the conduct and the resulting injury; and actual loss or damage to the plaintiff." Brewing for Brewing v. City of Philadelphia, 199 A.3d 348, 355 (Pa. 2018).

         The court found the Dead Man's Act prohibited Ms. Jones from testifying about the cause of her fall. The Dead Man's Act provides, in relevant part, "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." Hera v. McCormick, 625 A.2d 682, 688 (Pa. Super. 1993).

         A. Applicability of Dead Man's Act to Ms. Jones' Testimony

         Ms. Jones claims that the trial court should not have deemed her an incompetent witness under the Dead Man's Act. She argues her case does not satisfy the legislative intent for the Act and "that the purpose of the Act must be kept in the forefront of a court's mind as that determines its applicability to a particular case." Ms. Jones' Brief at 12. Because there were no witnesses to her fall, Ms. Jones argues that Mr. Stover would not have been able to testify as to causation, if he were still alive. Thus, in her view, Mr. Stover's death did not weaken ...

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