The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Western District (“Pennsylvania Supreme Court”), in its Opinion filed on July 21, 2020, stated: “There are instances in which a party detects, but fails to preserve, an error that could result in a mistrial. In today’s decision, we again recognize that a trial court possesses the very limited and restrained authority to halt proceedings and compel them to begin anew based upon that unpreserved error. But in such a circumstance, a trial court may only use its sua sponte authority to grant a new trial where “exceedingly clear error” results in “manifest injustice,” of a constitutional or structural nature … However, that is not what occurred here, and the Superior Court’s conclusion that it did must be reversed. Because Providence Care Center did not preserve its request for a mistrial and because the trial court did not grant, and could not have granted, a new trial sua sponte based upon the unpreserved request for a mistrial, we reverse the Superior Court’s order and remand for further proceedings.”
The underling case involved the fall and subsequent death of a resident in a Pennsylvania nursing home. The resident’s son filed a Pennsylvania nursing home negligence lawsuit against the nursing home alleging that the defendant nursing home should have known that his mother required supervision because of two previous falls in 2011; that the nursing home was understaffed; and, that the nursing home failed to provide needed safety measures. The jury found the defendant nursing home was both negligent and reckless, and awarded $2,000,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages.
The trial court granted the defendant’s motions for judgment non obstante veredicto (“JNOV”) on punitive damages and a new trial on negligence and compensatory damages, in part because of the staffing, star rating, and closing argument issues even though the defendant nursing home had not preserved its right to request a mistrial.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion
Pa.R.C.P. 227.1(b), with an exception not relevant to this case, forbids a trial court from granting post-trial relief unless: (1) if then available, [the grounds] were raised in pre-trial proceedings or by motion, objection, point for charge, request for findings of fact or conclusions of law, offer of proof or other appropriate method at trial; and (2) are specified in the [post-trial] motion. The motion shall state how the grounds were asserted in pre-trial proceedings or at trial. Grounds not specified are deemed waived unless leave is granted upon cause shown to specify additional grounds.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated, “A straightforward application of Rule 227.1(b) and our precedent mandates concluding that [the defendant nursing home] waived its ability to ask for a mistrial because it did not “make timely and specific objections during trial.”” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court continued: “In each instance outlined above, [the defendant nursing home’s] attorneys made a strategic choice to continue the trial, rather than ask for a mistrial. In remarkably similar fashion to the attorneys in McMillen, [the defendant nursing home’s] “counsel apparently gambled that they could still win before the jury already empaneled as opposed to incurring the expenditure of time and money that would necessarily occur if a mistrial were granted and a new trial ordered. They lost.” McMillen, 649 A.2d at 933. Having lost, [the defendant nursing home] may have been “inspired after trial and an adverse verdict by the thought that an appellate court may seize upon a previously unclaimed error and afford relief on a ground not called to the trial court’s attention.” Dilliplaine, 322 A.2d at 116. Such an ex post inspiration will not allow a trial court to bypass our waiver jurisprudence. Thus, [the defendant nursing home] did not preserve a request for a mistrial at any point during the trial itself, as the Superior Court rightly acknowledged.”
Even though the Superior Court reached the same conclusion that the defendant nursing home did not preserve its request for a mistrial, that court nonetheless opined that “it is evident that the trial court felt compelled to grant a new trial independent of [the defendant nursing home’s] motions requesting such relief” by using its sua sponte authority to order a new trial.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated that “in an age in which our system relies upon “alert professional representation at trial,” Dilliplaine, 322 A.2d at 116, when a party recognizes an error, but fails to preserve that error, the bar for a trial court to grant a new trial sua sponte must be even higher than the already substantial hurdle of the “interest of justice.” In such a situation, a trial court may exercise its sua sponte authority only in truly exceptional circumstances. A trial court should make such a ruling only where “exceedingly clear error” results in “manifest injustice” … That “exceedingly clear error” should be of a constitutional or structural nature, and “manifest injustice” must be of such a magnitude as to amount to a severe deprivation of a party’s liberty interest. Although these requirements are more difficult to prove than the “interest of justice” standard, we reject the notion that today’s decision will result in the “virtual elimination of the sua sponte power.””
The Pennsylvania Appellate Court held: “Applying these principles to the instant case, we first find that the trial court did not invoke its sua sponte authority … the trial court ordered a new trial only in the context of responding to [the defendant nursing home’s] post-trial motions … The trial court did not independently raise any of the prejudicial errors from trial, either during trial or in publishing a separate opinion after trial … Thus, there is no indication that the trial court intended to grant a new trial sua sponte … It is rarely the case that a trial is perfect, but it even is rarer that a trial court can invoke its sua sponte authority on a recognized, but unpreserved issue.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court further held: “on remand, the Superior Court shall consider the other bases for the trial court’s grant of a new trial. In doing so, the Superior Court must again consider any possible waiver by either party, including in failing to preserve an issue at trial or in failing to note an adverse party’s lack of preservation upon appeal. Therefore, we reverse the Superior Court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
Source Temple v. Providence Care Center, LLC d/b/a Providence Care Center, J-87-2019.
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