Amending a Civil Complaint in Pennsylvania After the Statute of Limitations? Beware of the “New Theory of Liability” Myth

For trial lawyers, drafting and filing a Civil Action Complaint is an obvious and important step in litigation. The Complaint is the document that literally starts a lawsuit. But it is more than that. Much more. Although it is filed at the very beginning of a case, the Complaint, and specifically the allegations and causes of action set out in the Complaint, is the foundational document that controls the scope of the litigation and the availability of remedies. So you better get it right.

A plaintiff can only purse the specific claims (causes of action) against a defendant that are “pled” (i.e “alleged”) in the Complaint. If you don’t plead a cause of action, you cannot pursue it and you cannot recover for it. So needless to say, it is important to understand what causes of action you have before filing a Complaint.

Unfortunately, what constitutes a “cause of action” is not always clear and a number of sloppy Superior Court opinions in recent years have made it even more challenging.

“Causes of Action”

But lets start with the basics. What is a cause of action and why does it matter? Say, for example, you undergo surgery and things go badly. Sadly, you are permanently injured. Assume also that you believe your surgeon did two things wrong that caused your injury. First, he made a mistake during surgery and that mistake contributed to your injury. Second, the surgery he performed was different from the surgery you agreed on. In this scenario, you have at least two different causes of action. One cause of action is medical negligence (the doctor made a mistake). The second cause of action is one for lack of informed consent (the doctor did not have permission to perform the surgery). In this scenario, you need to include both causes of action in your Complaint. If you forget to plead one of the causes of action and the statute of limitations expires, you are out of luck.

“The Myth”

But in recent years, lawyers and courts have blurred the line between a cause of action (which needs to be pled), and a theory of liability, which does not. What do I mean? Well lets go back to our previous example. Say you file a Complaint after your surgery alleging both medical negligence and lack of informed consent. Assume further that your claim for medical negligence is that the doctor accidentally cut a specific nerve in your knee during surgery leaving you with limited function in your leg. When you file your Complaint you include an allegation that the doctor accidentally cut nerve A. Turns out though, that the doctor did not accidentally cut nerve A. He used the wrong medical equipment which led to your nerve injury. In either case nerve A is injured and you still can’t use your leg. If you wanted to amend your Complaint after the statute of limitations, under Pennsylvania law you absolutely should be permitted to do so. Why? Because you are not alleging a new cause of action (your claim is still that the surgeon committed medical negligence that caused nerve damage), you are only revising your theory of liability (wrong equipment instead of accidentally cutting a nerve).

Over the years, both trial courts and even the Superior Court have begun to blur the distinction between a “cause of action” and a “theory of liability.” The result is that courts have disallowed amendments after the statute of limitations, even when those amendments do not change the cause of action, but merely seek to alter or expound upon the theory liability. For instance, the Superior Courts decision in Reynolds v. Thomas Jefferson Hospital flat out ignores the distinction between a cause of action and a theory of liability. That decision is wrong, but still has not been corrected.
The upshot is that it is now common practice for defense attorneys to object to motions to amend a complaint, claiming that a plaintiff should not be permitted to allege a “new theory of liability” after the running of the statute of limitations. This is completely wrong. It is a modern legal myth in desperate need of correction.

So lets work on that correction!

The “Real” Law

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has long held that the “right to amend should be liberally granted at any stage of the proceeding  unless there is an error of law or resulting prejudice to an adverse party.” Werner v. Zazyczny, 681 A.2d 1331, 1338 (Pa. 1996). The reason for freely allowing amendments is to “secure a determination of the case on the merits whenever possible, and not enforce technical rules of pleading.” In re Francis Edward McGillick Foundation, 594 A.2d 322, 329 (Pa. Super. 1991), aff’d in part, rev’d in part on other grounds, 642 A.2d 467 (Pa. 1994).

Not only should amendments be liberally permitted, but trial courts have broad discretion to allow amendments that include more specific factual pleadings. See, e.g., Pike Cnty. Hotels Corp. v. Keifer, 396 A.2d 677, 681 (Pa. Super. 1978). The Pennsylvania Superior Court has observed that “the lower court has broad discretion in determining the amount of detail that must be averred since the standard of pleading set forth in Rule 1019(a) is incapable of precise detail.” Id. at 681.

Contrary to the defense counsel “new theory of liability” myth, it is blackletter law that a Complaint does not limit plaintiff to a specific theory of liability. Indeed, as explained by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Kusis v. Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton Corp., 319 A.2d 914 (Pa. 1974):

The notion that a complaint weds a plaintiff to a particular theory of liability is foreign to Pennsylvania pleading. Ours is a system of fact pleading, not “theory” pleading; a plaintiff is free to proceed on any theory of liability which the facts alleged in his complaint will support. Id. at 918, n.8; see also Zitney v. Appalachian Timber Prods., 72 A.3d 281 (Pa. Super. 2013).

Although a plaintiff may not assert a new “cause of action” after the statute of limitations has run, if an amendment “merely amplifies that which has already been averred, it should be allowed even though the Statute of Limitations has already run.” Connor v. Allegheny General Hospital, 461 A.2d 600, 602 (Pa. 1983). The Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed the issue of a “new cause of action” in Junk v. East End Fire Dep’t, 396 A.2d 1269 (Pa. Super. 1978), explaining:

A new cause of action does not exist if plaintiff’s amendment merely adds to or amplifies the original complaint or if the original complaint states a cause of action showing that the plaintiff has a legal right to recover what is claimed in the subsequent complaint. Id., at 1277.

I cite this case law because it is an accurate reflection of Pennsylvania law governing pleadings. It also obliterates the growing myth that a theory of liability is the same thing as a cause of action.

James Goslee is a trial attorney in Philadelphia and can be reached at https://jamiegoslee.com/about/

 

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