In a recent decision authored by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, Shiflett v. Lehigh Valley Health Network, Inc., 2017 Pa. Super. 354 (2017), the Court reaffirmed the importance of making preliminary objections consistent with Connor v. Allegheny General Hospital, 501 Pa. 306 (1983) in the context of the statute of limitations in medical malpractice cases.
In Shiflett, the plaintiff, in her various amended complaints alleged that she suffered a fall after undergoing left knee surgery at Lehigh Valley. Her first complaint included essentially a claim for fall and related injuries, and several general allegations of negligence. Lehigh Valley filed preliminary objections in line with Connor (i.e. objections to the vagueness and lack of specificity of the negligence allegations). In response, the plaintiff filed a first amended complaint which provided further specificity and also included a claim for corporate negligence (which was brought within the applicable statute of limitations). Lehigh Valley again filed Connor objections, to which the plaintiff responded by arguing that the allegations were specific enough to meet the pleading standards. The Court overruled these preliminary objections.
At no point in the complaint, first amended complaint, or the plaintiff's response to Lehigh's preliminary objections, did the plaintiff make specific reference to any events that occurred in Lehigh's Transitional Skills Unit (TSU). The case proceeded to discovery, and nearly three years after the events that gave rise to the cause of action, the plaintiff sought leave of court to amend her first amended complaint to add claims for conduct that occurred in the TSU. Lehigh opposed the motion, contending that the amendment added a new cause of action outside of the statute of limitations. The Trial Court, however, disagreed and granted the motion to amend. The plaintiff later secured a verdict against Lehigh Valley at trial.
On appeal, the Superior Court concluded that the second amended complaint pleaded a new cause of action for vicarious liability against Lehigh Valley for the negligent actions of a nurse that did not appear in the plaintiff's first amended complaint, and which was therefore barred by the applicable statute of limitations. In so holding, the Court vacated the judgment and the verdict against Lehigh Valley for the claim at issue.
The crux of the Superior Court's holding related back to the Connor objections and whether the general allegations pleaded by the plaintiff were sufficient to put Lehigh Valley on notice of the nature of claim. The plaintiff argued that the second amended complaint was merely an amplification of the general negligence averments. The Superior Court, after analyzing the specific averments and amendments, disagreed and held that because Lehigh had raised Connor objections to the general averments of negligence, the plaintiff was barred from the amendment she sought with her second amended complaint. Had Lehigh not raised the Connor objections, the amendment would have stood.
Comment: While Connor objections have generally fallen out of favor due to the cost of presenting preliminary objections rather than simply filing an answer and new matter, the Shiflett holding has reinvigorated the practice of raising such objections. As most complaints contain some form of "catch-all" negligence allegation, defense counsel must be extremely vigilant in asserting Connor objections to those allegations, in order to prevent later "amplification" of the general averments through amendments, which have the potential to subject clients to theories of negligence not originally pleaded after the statute of limitations has passed.
Jennifer R. Williams