Every so often Pennsylvania appellate courts hand down a decision that addresses several novel and/or uncommon legal issues in one decision. When the courts render such a legal gem, the legal community should be aware of the decision. One such appellate decision is the state Superior Court’s opinion in the recently decided case of Shiner v. Ralston, No. 1791 MDA 2011, (Pa. Super. Feb. 22, 2013). In Shiner, a panel of the Superior Court addressed several interesting legal issues: (1) the distinction between the "sudden emergency doctrine" and the "sudden medical emergency defense"; (2) the defendants’ burden of proof in order to obtain summary judgment where they seek judgment based upon an affirmative defense; (3) the proof required for expert testimony where the party offering the testimony does not have the burden of proof; and (4) the moving party’s ability to obtain summary judgment under the Nanty-Glo rule where it relies upon its own witnesses’ testimony.

The Facts of Shiner

Shiner involved a motor vehicle accident in Centre County. The defendant-driver’s vehicle crossed a grass median divider and then struck the plaintiff’s vehicle. The plaintiff, Glenn Shiner, suffered serious injuries in the crash and the defendant-driver, Ralph W. Ralston Sr., was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy found Ralston suffered a cardiac dysrhythmia, secondary to severe coronary disease, which caused him to become unconscious and subsequently expire, according to the opinion. After suit was filed by Glenn and Beth Shiner, the defendants obtained a pathology expert as well as an accident reconstruction expert who issued reports concluding that Ralston became unconscious due to the effects of his unforeseen cardiovascular disease and his unconsciousness caused the crash. Importantly, the Shiners proffered the report of a pathologist who, while agreeing that Ralston suffered cardiac syncope due to coronary artery disease, which resulted in loss of control of his vehicle, also opined that Ralston had experienced signs and symptoms of his cardiac disease sufficiently before the accident to avert the crash, the opinion said.

After the completion of discovery, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted on the basis of the "sudden emergency doctrine," finding that Ralston was confronted with a sudden and unforeseeable emergency situation that caused the collision, and the Shiners did not adduce evidence from which a jury could find the emergency confronting Ralston was not sudden or was foreseeable.

Emergency Doctrine versus Emergency Defense

In its opinion reversing the grant of summary judgment, the Superior Court first pointed out that the trial court had conflated the legal principles of the sudden emergency doctrine and sudden medical emergency defense. The court noted that the doctrine of sudden emergency is not an affirmative defense, but a rule of law concerning whether a party has comported with the standard of care in a given situation: An individual will not be held to the "usual degree of care" or be required to exercise his or her best judgment when confronted with a sudden and unexpected position of peril created in whole or part by someone other than the person claiming protection of the rule. In contrast, the sudden medical emergency defense is usually based upon a claim that the operator of a motor vehicle suffered a sudden and unforeseen loss of consciousness resulting in the accident. Although the Superior Court could not find Pennsylvania appellant authority adopting the defense, it was alluded to in a Supreme Court decision and several federal courts have recognized and applied unconsciousness as a defense. The Superior Court described the defense as "when a person is unconscious and unable to act, he is incapable of negligence. Unforeseeable loss of consciousness, if proven, is a complete defense to negligence, and the defendant bears the burden of establishing the defense." The Superior Court further held that under Pennsylvania rules of procedure it is an affirmative defense that must be pled by the defendant. For several reasons, the Superior Court found that the sudden medical emergency defense would not support the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.

The Court’s Reasoning

Initially, the Superior Court indicated that, since the defendants had not pled the sudden medical emergency as a defense, it was problematic for the trial court to grant summary judgment on that basis. However, the court did not stop there but went on to hold that as sudden medical emergency is an affirmative defense, the defendants bore the burden of proof; i.e., they had the burden to prove that no reasonable jury could conclude that Ralston was negligent. It was not the plaintiff’s burden to produce evidence to the contrary. Therefore, the trial court erred when it placed the burden on the plaintiff on this issue.

The Superior Court also held that the defendants’ reliance on the testimony of family members that Ralston did not have any cardiac symptoms prior to the accident was a violation of the Nanty-Glo rule, from Borough of Nanty-Glo v. American Surety Co. of New York. Under Nanty-Glo, testimonial evidence of the moving party or his or her witnesses, even if uncontradicted, will not support entry of summary judgment. The jury could find that the witnesses are not believable, and in the instant matter, Ralston did in fact experience symptoms prior to the motor vehicle accident. Even more damaging to the defendants’ position, the Superior Court noted that the Shriners opposed the motion for summary judgment with the report of their expert pathologist. The trial court believed that the expert’s report was legally insufficient to establish that Ralston did suffer cardiac symptoms prior to the accident at issue. However, the Superior Court pointed out that, under Pennsylvania law, "an expert offered by a party who does not bear the burden of proof on an issue need not be certain as those of the experts of the party who bears the burden of proof." Therefore, it was an error to disregard the Shriners’ expert’s report given the defendants had the burden of proof on the affirmative defense of sudden medical emergency. Thus, on the multiple bases, the Superior Court reversed the grant of summary judgment.

Stephen J. Pokiniewski Jr., a member of Anapol Schwartz, has developed an expertise in managed care cases. He focuses his practice on medical malpractice and personal injury matters. Pokiniewski is a member of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, as well as the American, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia trial lawyers associations.