December 2012 Summary Judgment Update

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A recent decision out of the Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas did a nice job of refreshing, in our minds, the standard to be applied in reviewing motions for summary judgment in the context of limited tort claims.  While the law has never really changed, the application often has and, President Judge Motto’s decision is a nice reminder of how these cases should be handled.

In Dengler v. Marsh, Judge Motto reiterated the standard first set forth by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in their seminal 1998 decision in Washington v. Baxter which concluded that unless reasonable minds cannot differ on the nature of a limited tort plaintiff’s injuries and whether they constitute a “serious impairment of a bodily function”, the case should be submitted to a jury for determination.  While that standard has always been the law in the Commonwealth there have been many cases when it appears not to have been applied.  How many cases have been dismissed on summary judgment where it seems to clearly appear that there is an issue on which reasonable minds could differ?  In our estimation, it seems like there has been too many.  That being the case, what Judge Motto’s decision clarifies is that the Court’s role on such a motion is not to find facts or to assess the plaintiff or their doctor’s credibility but to simply decide if there is any issue as to the seriousness of an impairment of the plaintiff’s bodily function.

In all honesty, a review of the plaintiff’s claim (even in the eyes of a career PI attorney) might lead to the conclusion that there was no breach of the limited tort threshold. No visit to the primary care physician until six weeks after the crash. No mention of the injuries at issue to the PCP at the time of the visit. No clear diagnostic testing. Chiropractor only medical support of injury claims. However, the case reminds us that it is not the “eyes” of the plaintiff’s attorney, nor the defense attorney, nor the judge for that matter that is dispositive.  The issue in simply whether the nature of the plaintiff’s claims, whether disputed or not, rise to the point that the jury should be allowed to lay their eyes on the case. In the case at bar, the plaintiff, supported by her chiropractor’s report, set out a number of limitations that her injuries had caused and, although the jaded might roll their eyes at this proof the Court clarified that when the proofs are made, summary judgment must be denied.

Judge Motto’s decision reminds practicing plaintiff’s attorneys that if we have a limited tort claim that we can’t get settled and we feel strongly enough about the merits of the case to file suit that as long as we “get our ducks in a row” and marshal the proof we should, in almost ever case, survive summary judgment.  And, in the cases where we have no proof to marshal we should lose.  While this seems to be a basic thought process, the constant barrage we face from adjusters, defense counsel and seeing the number of limited tort cases dismissed, may have caused us to forget this.  So a thank you to Judge Motto for reminding us what the law is and how we can go about applying it correctly to better serve our clients.