Partial Summary Judgment Awarded to Plaintiffs by Establishing Negligence Per Se of the Defendant

In the case of Broe v. Manns, No. 3:15-cv-985 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 27, 2016 Munley, J.), Judge James M. Munley of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted a rare partial motion for summary judgment filed by the Plaintiffs on the issue of liability based on the concept of negligence per se in a motor vehicle accident case.  The accident occurred when the Plaintiffs’ vehicle slowed in order to avoid a bear crossing the roadway. Defendant was travelling behind and failed to brake as Plaintiff slowed down and rear-ended the Plaintiffs. The Memorandum Opinion notes that Defendant was cited under the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code, 75 Pa. C.S.A. §3361, involving driving too fast for conditions/the assured clear distance ahead rule.  Importantly, the Opinion seems to focus on Defendant’s deposition testimony in the civil suit and the mere fact that the Defendant was cited at the accident scene, since the ruling does not provide any information as to how the citation was adjudicated.

In granting partial summary judgment to the Plaintiffs on the issue of liability, the Court focused on admissions made by the Defendant in his deposition.  Specifically, the Court found that the Defendant had admitted that the roadway contained hills, that he attempted to navigate with a cellphone GPS application while driving, that he did not see Plaintiff’s vehicle in front of him until it was “too late,” and that he failed to apply his brakes because he “was distracted” just before the collision occurred. Judge Munley found that the admissions, coupled with the issuance of the citation, supported a finding of negligence per se against the Defendant on the issue of liability. As noted by the Judge, a finding of negligence per se is a tool that allows a plaintiff to establish two of the four elements required to be proven in a negligence claim: a duty owed by the defendant and a breach of that duty.

The Defendant’s arguments against summary judgment were found to be unpersuasive.  First, Defendant attempted to argue that summary judgment was improper because the “sudden emergency doctrine” relieves him of liability.  Under the sudden emergency doctrine “a person confronted with a sudden and unforeseen occurrence, because of the shortness of time in which to react, should not be held to the same standard of care as someone confronted with a foreseeable occurrence.”  Lockhart v. List, 665 A.2nd 1176, 1180 (Pa. 1995). Judge Munley, however, pointed out case law that established that where a person was himself driving carelessly or recklessly they could not avail themselves of the protections of the sudden emergency doctrine.  Chadwick v. Popadick, 159 A.2d 907, 910 (Pa. 1960).  The Judge found that the citation and the admissions of Defendant constituted “undisputed evidence” that at the least he was driving carelessly at the time of the accident.  Therefore, the sudden emergency doctrine could not create a genuine issue of material fact that would defeat the granting of summary judgment on the issue of liability.

Defendant also attempted to argue that summary judgment was not warranted by averring that Pennsylvania state law did not allow uncontradicted oral testimony of the moving party or the moving party’s witnesses to establish the absence of a genuine issue of material fact under the Nanty-Glo line of cases.  Judge Munley noted that Defendant’s reliance on Nanty-Glo in federal court was “misplaced” as he termed the Nanty-Glo decision a state-law procedural rule that had no application in federal court.  Additionally, he noted that even if the Nanty-Glo rule would apply to federal courts deciding motions from summary judgment, the rule would not apply where the moving party relies on the uncontradicted oral testimony of an adverse party to support their motion.

Matthew C. Wilson

Office: King of Prussia
Phone: (610) 977-2975
Email: mwilson@forryullman.com
Practice Areas: Construction Litigation, Commercial Litigation, General Liability, Nursing Home Defense, Premises Liability, Products Liability, Third Party