In its opinion filed on May 1, 2019, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania (“Pennsylvania Appellate Court”) reversed the trial court’s granting defendant Quest Diagnostics Clinical Laboratories, Inc.’s (“Quest Diagnostics”) request to abate and dismiss the plaintiff’s Pennsylvania medical malpractice case, finding that the trial court misinterpreted 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3375 to stand for the proposition that a party substitution (i.e. changing the case caption) must occur within one year from the date of the decedent’s death.
20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3375
Section 3375 states: “If a plaintiff or petitioner in any action or proceeding now pending or hereafter brought dies and a personal representative is not appointed within one year after a suggestion of death is filed in the action or proceeding, any defendant or respondent may petition the court to abate the action as to the cause of action of the decedent. Copies of the petition shall be served upon the executor named in the will, if known to the defendant, and otherwise upon all known next of kin entitled to letters of administration. The court shall abate the action as to the cause of action of the decedent if the delay in taking out letters is not reasonably explained.”
The Underlying Facts
The decedent had commenced her Pennsylvania medical malpractice action by filing a writ of summons on June 14, 2013. On December 13, 2013, the decedent filed a complaint alleging a medical malpractice claim against defendant Quest Diagnostics, and filed an amended complaint on June 10, 2014. The decedent died on April 2, 2015.
The decedent’s mother filed a Suggestion of Death of the plaintiff on June 24, 2015, pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 2355 and 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3375. The decedent’s mother was granted Letters Testamentary and named Executrix of the estate on September 1, 2015. On February 22, 2016, the mother filed a Motion to Substitute Plaintiff in accordance with Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 2352. On May 10, 2017, the trial court denied the motion without prejudice to properly present the motion with due notice to all parties at a session of motions court.
On May 15, 2017, defendant Quest Diagnostics filed a response in opposition to the motion to substitute along with a petition to abate and dismiss based on the mother’s failure to timely substitute another party as the plaintiff within one year of the decedent’s death and/or the filing of the suggestion of death. The following day (May 16, 2017), the mother filed a notice of presentment of matter at Civil Motions Court on the issue of amending the caption due to the decedent’s death as requested in her motion to substitute the decedent.
On November 30, 2017, following a hearing, the trial court entered an order dismissing the action for the following reasons: (1) the mother’s failure to timely substitute another party after the death of the decedent; and (2) the mother’s failure to provide a reasonable explanation for the delay. The mother appealed.
The Pennsylvania Appellate Court stated that it is clear that 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3375 requires that an estate be raised, letters of administration be issued, and a personal representative be appointed within one year of the suggestion of death being filed. However, the actual timing of the substitution of the personal representative in the underlying action is not governed by Section 3375. The Pennsylvania Appellate Court stated that the trial court examined the mother’s delay of over a year in presenting the substitution motion to the court in the context of Section 3375’s “reasonably explained” component. However, the reasonable explanation in Section 3375 relates to the delay in taking out letters. The Pennsylvania Appellate Court therefore held that the trial court abused its discretion when it granted defendant Quest Diagnostics’ request to abate and dismiss the underlying Pennsylvania medical malpractice cause of action.
Source Brown v. Quest Diagnostics Clinical Laboratories, Inc., 2019 PA Super 142.
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