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PA Superior Court Allows Vicarious and Corporate Liability Claims to Proceed Despite Unnamed Agents

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The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently overruled a trial court decision to sustain preliminary objections, and allowed a plaintiff to proceed with vicarious liability and corporate negligence claims against a Philadelphia hospital. In doing so, the three-judge panel reiterated the sufficient level of specificity required when alleging negligence of unidentified agents.

The case at issue involved a man who fell from his hospital bed after undergoing surgery and dislodged his catheter. As a result, the patient underwent a second surgery to reinsert the catheter, during which his bladder was injured. When closing, a surgeon left gauze inside the patient's abdomen. The patient died of septic shock less than one month later. The patient's estate sued the two physicians who were eventually dismissed as well as the hospital for the allegedly negligent action that resulted in the patient's death and asserted claims of medical negligence, vicarious negligence, and corporate negligence.

In its complaint, the estate did not identify the surgeons, nurses, or other hospital employees in its vicarious liability count. The hospital therefore filed preliminary objections as to unnamed agents, claiming that the plaintiff failed to name its allegedly liable staff with specificity to form an agency relationship. The hospital also later filed a motion in limine to preclude plaintiff's corporate negligence claim for failure to plead the claim with sufficient specificity. The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas sustained the preliminary objections and granted the motion in limine, and the estate moved for an appeal.

Judge Christine L. Donohue authored the Superior Court opinion that overturned the trial court's decision. In the opinion, Judge Donohue looked to the recent Sokolsky v. Eidelman decision in which the Superior Court stated that failing to name specific employees did not preclude a plaintiff's claim against an employer so long as those employees acted negligently during the course and within the scope of their employment. Judge Donohue explained that the identities of the allegedly offending employees either were known by the hospital or could be ascertained during discovery. Further, when the estate's references to the unnamed individuals were read in context with the allegations, Judge Donohue found that the allegations were sufficiently specific.

Judge Donohue also found the estate's claim for corporate negligence was sufficient because the estate had plead enough facts to support a finding that the hospital violated its duty to retain competent medical personnel. Although again no particular names were provided in the complaint, Judge Donohue stated that the allegations described of a physician stitching a piece of gauze inside a patient would likely allow a fact finder to decide whether the physician lacked the requisite skill and that therefore the hospital breached its duty to the patient by hiring an incompetent physician. Additionally, she cited the lower court's trial opinion that stated that merely the fact that the patient's catheter became dislodged could be indicative of the hospital's failure to maintain adequate medical equipment. As the estate alleged that the hospital had actual and constructive knowledge of the physician's skill and the equipment being used, Judge Donohue found that the estate sufficiently plead a cause of action for corporate negligence.

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