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The Law Can Be Cruel Sometimes: Dead Man’s Act Kills Personal Injury Lawsuit

A recent decision by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania shows that in trying to achieve justice for all (including the defendant), the law sometimes can be cruel.

A Fall Down Steps

In Jones v. Plumer, a tenant claimed that her landlord poorly maintained the front steps at her residence and that she fell down the stairs as a result. The tenant, who extended her arm to break her fall, struck her hand on the concrete and broke several bones and required surgery. The steps had no railing.

About a year after the accident, the landlord died, and the tenant subsequently sued the administratrix of his estate to recover for her injuries. In her lawsuit, she alleged that the landlord knew his front steps were unsafe but neglected to repair them in a reasonable and timely manner. The administratrix sought to bar the tenant from testifying against her deceased landlord under a Pennsylvania statute known as the Dead Man’s Act.

Dead Man’s Act

The Dead Man’s Act provides, in relevant part:

Where any party to a thing … is dead … and his right thereto or therein has passed … to a party … who represents his interest … any surviving or remaining party to such thing … shall [not] be a competent witness to any matter occurring before the death of said party.

Translating the legalese, the act provides that surviving parties in litigation who have an interest that is adverse to a decedent’s estate are disqualified from testifying as to any transaction or event which occurred before the decedent’s death. The reasoning behind the act is that a surviving party cannot be a competent witness because the dead man’s estate is in no position to refute the surviving party’s testimony concerning the dead man’s liability for injuries.

Since the tenant could not testify, and there were no other witnesses to her accident, the tenant was left with no way to prove that her landlord was negligent. The trial court accordingly ruled that her case could not proceed. The tenant appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.

On Appeal

In affirming the ruling of the trial court, the Superior Court found that the trial court had “properly applied the statute as the General Assembly has authored it.”

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the tenant is left without a legal remedy. It’s a cruel outcome, particularly since her injuries were serious enough to require surgery. As always, if you have been injured in an accident, we recommend consulting with a personal injury attorney immediately to ensure that your rights are protected to the fullest extent possible under the law.