Pennsylvania Superior Court Ends Split of Authority Based on Allegations of Recklessness Within a Negligence Complaint
In what can be seen as a setback for the defense bar, the Pennsylvania Superior Court recently addressed the long unsettled issue regarding the ability of plaintiffs to allege recklessness in a negligence complaint. Out of an abundance of caution, these types of allegations have routinely been subject to preliminary objections, to avoid the potential for punitive damages. In Monroe v. CBH2O LP, d/b/a Camelback Ski Resort, 2022 WL 17087072 (Pa. Super. Nov. 21, 2022), the Superior Court held that, under Pa.R.C.P. 1019(b), allegations of recklessness and/or reckless conduct fall under “state of mind” allegations and, thus, may be pled generally. The opinion removes the requirement that plaintiffs plead allegations of reckless conduct with particularity.
The Monroe case arose out of an accident involving a zipline. While the court’s review was based upon the granting of a motion for judgment on the pleadings related to allegations of recklessness, the Superior Court made clear that its holding would encompass cases in which a defendant files preliminary objections to a complaint on the same grounds.
The complaint in Monroe contained general allegations of recklessness, as follows:
[Defendant’s] recklessness, carelessness and negligence included, but was not limited to:
a. Failing to properly monitor the speed of the zipline, in disregard of the safety of [Plaintiff];
b. Failing to use reasonable prudence and care by leaving [Plaintiff] to land with no help, in disregard of the safety of [Plaintiff];
c. Failing to use reasonable prudence and care to respond to [Plaintiff]’s safety concerns during the ziplining, specifically when [Plaintiff] asked [Defendant] to slow down the ziplining machine, in disregard of the safety of [Plaintiff]; and,
d. Failing to inspect and/or properly monitor the ziplining machine engine, in disregard of the safety of [Plaintiff].
The court began its discussion by reviewing the language of Pa.R.C.P. 1019(b), which states:
(b) Averments of fraud or mistake shall be averred with particularity. Malice, intent, knowledge, and other conditions of mind may be averred generally.
The court stated, “The plain language of this Rule thus indicates that, while a party must plead the material facts that support a cause of action, a party may generally aver knowledge, intent, and state of mind.” Monroe, 2022 WL 17087072, at *8. The Monroe court went on to discuss the interplay between negligence and recklessness, stating, “In other words, gross negligence and recklessness are states of mind; they are forms of negligence, not independent causes of action. Thus, our procedural rules allow the plaintiff to plead gross negligence and recklessness generally.” Id. at *9.
The Monroe court held that allegations of recklessness are “subsumed” within the negligence allegation. See Id. at *9-10. As such, these allegations do not require a separate, more specific type of pleading. The court opined that doing so would place an undue burden on the plaintiff to plead specific facts related to the alleged recklessness at the pleading stage. It further noted that only through discovery and expert opinion could the plaintiff determine what the defendant knew or should have known about the risk involved in a given situation. The opinion further stated that, only upon the completion of discovery, is a plaintiff required to produce evidence of recklessness and that, should a plaintiff fail to meet this burden, summary judgment should be entered on the claims of recklessness.
In a footnote to the opinion, the court discussed its awareness of the inconsistent rulings by various Pennsylvania trial courts and specifically stated that requiring a plaintiff to plead specific facts of recklessness was a misapplication of rule 1019. Id. at *10 n. 6. The court listed several trial level cases which either struck down allegations of recklessness or required a more specific pleading. In addressing these cases, the Monroe court held:
These and all other trial court decisions that have sustained preliminary objections or granted judgment on the pleadings based upon demands for heightened factual averments to support a claim of willful, wanton, or reckless conduct did not accurately apply the law. Our ruling today removes any doubt that, so long as a plaintiff’s complaint (1) specifically alleges facts to state a prima facie claim for the tort of negligence, and (2) also alleges that the defendant acted recklessly, the latter state-of-mind issue may only be resolved as a matter of law after discovery has closed.
Based upon the Superior Court’s ruling, it appears that the split of authority amongst Pennsylvania trial courts has been settled and plaintiffs may plead recklessness in nearly every type of negligence case. The court’s holding will undoubtedly lead to an increase in complaints alleging reckless conduct, with defense attorneys being forced to withhold attacking the sufficiency of such allegations until the summary judgment stage, after discovery has closed. Defense counsel will need to remain mindful of the allegations of recklessness throughout a case and strategize their defense to pave the way for an eventual motion for summary judgment to rid the case of any recklessness issue and avoid any chance that punitive damages will be a jury question.
*Brad is an associate in our Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, office. He can be reached at 412.803.2448 or email@example.com.
Defense Digest, Vol. 28, No. 12, December 2022, is prepared by Marshall Dennehey to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2022 Marshall Dennehey. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.