The Superior Court of Pennsylvania (“Pennsylvania Appellate Court”), in its non-precedential decision filed on September 9, 2019, addressed the issue, “To what extent does a plaintiff in a tort action, who obtains a default judgment, have to prove a causal connection between the tortious conduct of the defendant and the damages sought?”
The plaintiff had sued the defendant, claiming that the defendant misrepresented to him that he was a medical resident at a local hospital at the time the defendant negligently provided at-home medical care to the plaintiff for a leg laceration, which the plaintiff alleged caused him to have part of his left foot and all five toes amputated. The plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendant for negligence and fraud, alleging that the defendant falsely represented himself as a doctor, which induced the plaintiff to rely on the defendant’s advice and to delay emergency room treatment. The defendant did not file a response to the plaintiff’s complaint and the prothonotary entered a default judgment against the defendant.
The plaintiff proceeded to an assessment of damages bench trial, pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 1037(b)(1). The plaintiff was the only witness to testify at the damages trial (the defendant failed to appear). The plaintiff introduced photographs of his injury, the defendant’s forged credentials, the complaint, and the defendant’s deposition testimony. However, the plaintiff did not introduce any medical records, expert medical reports, or medical testimony.
The trial court awarded the plaintiff zero dollars in damages, finding that the plaintiff failed to present sufficient credible evidence regarding the causal relationship between his leg laceration and the amputation involving his toes, and failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s fraud was a factual cause of any injury or loss to him. The plaintiff appealed.
The Pennsylvania Appellate Court stated that a default judgment operates as an admission by the defendant of all the well-pleaded facts alleged in the complaint. While a default judgment establishes liability—legal responsibility—it does not by itself entitle a plaintiff to all claimed damages.
The Pennsylvania Appellate Court stated that in the present case, the plaintiff’s complaint, coupled with the default judgment, established that the defendant falsely portrayed himself as a doctor and undertook to provide medical treatment and care to the plaintiff. Further, it was established that the defendant’s statements and conduct caused the plaintiff to delay seeking proper medical treatment. As such, in light of the default judgment, the plaintiff conclusively established that the defendant was liable under negligence and fraud theories for his actions.
The Pennsylvania Appellate Court further stated that the only issue at trial was the amount of damages to which he was entitled: “Despite this posture, [the plaintiff] still needed to prove that his injuries and losses arose from the conduct that gave rise to the suit … Here, the default judgment established that [the defendant] was liable for negligence and fraud. [Plaintiff] alleged many injuries and damages, however, he is only entitled to recover from [the defendant] for that which was the result of [the defendant’s] tortious conduct … At the damages trial, [Plaintiff] needed to show whether and to what extent, in terms of both physical consequences and monetary damages, the delayed treatment exacerbated his original injury, up to and including the need for amputation. [Plaintiff] did not present sufficient evidence of a causal connection between that delay and the ultimate partial amputation of his foot … We agree with the trial court that expert medical testimony was necessary to explain the nature and extent of [Plaintiff’s] injuries which flowed from [the defendant’s] culpable conduct.”
The Pennsylvania Appellate Court held: “a plaintiff who obtains a default judgment in a tort action is not relieved of his obligation to provide evidence of a causal connection between the defendant’s tortious conduct and the damages for which he seeks relief. In this case, [Plaintiff] needed to present expert medical testimony on that issue as it relates to most of his claimed damages.”
Nonetheless, the Pennsylvania Appellate Court also held: “We disagree, however, that there was insufficient evidence to award “any and all other damages claimed” … We believe that [Plaintiff] presented uncontested evidence regarding his pain and suffering that was attributable to the progression of his leg injury and his delay in seeking legitimate treatment. We remand for a hearing on damages, narrowly limited to pain and suffering related to the advancement of the leg injury caused by [the defendant’s] advice to delay seeking additional treatment.”
Source Knudsen v. Brownstein, J-A07007-19.
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