Written by attorney James S. Tupitza

Gross Negligence in Pennsylvania

Many people assume that when someone has injured them in one fashion or another that gross negligence is involved and that the result will certainly be punitive damages. It is important to first understand gross negligence and then understand that even gross negligence alone will not necessarily result in punitive damages. Let's hear how the Courts address this issue.

The Supreme Court of the United States in City of Springfield, MA v. Kibbe , 480 U.S. 257, 107 S. Ct 1114, at 1121 (1987) described gross negligence as deliberate indifference. In Conway v. O’Brien 312 U.S. 492, 61 S.Ct. 634 (1941), the Supreme Court of the United States stated that :

Gross negligence is substantially and appreciably higher in magnitude and more culpable than ordinary negligence. Gross negligence is equivalent to the failure to exercise even a slight degree of care. It is materially more want of care than constitutes simple inadvertence. It is an act or omission respecting legal duty of an aggravated character as distinguished from a mere failure to exercise ordinary care. It is very great negligence, or the absence of slight diligence, or the want of even scant care. It amounts to indifference to present legal duty, and to utter forgetfulness of legal obligations so far as other persons may be affected. It is a heedless and palpable violation of legal duty respecting the rights of others. The element of culpability which characterizes all negligence is, in gross negligence, magnified to a high degree as compared with that present in ordinary negligence. Gross negligence is manifestly a smaller amount of watchfulness and circumspection than the circumstances require of a prudent man. But it falls short of being such reckless disregard of probable consequences as is equivalent to a willful and intentional wrong. Ordinary and gross negligence differ in degree of inattention, while both differ in kind from wilful (sic) and intentional conduct which is or ought to be known to have a tendency to injure.

The Pennsylvania Courts have long struggled with the definition of gross negligence. Indeed it has one meaning in criminal matters and another in civil cases. The Pennsylvania Courts have not required the conduct to be intentional. A relatively recent decision of the Superior Court gathered prior authority and summarized years of decisions.

It has been observed aptly that analyzing the numerous Pennsylvania cases dealing with the definition of "gross negligence" is "more similar to looking at multiple pellets from a shotgun as compared to a single bullet from a rifle." Royal Indemnity Company v. Security Guards, Inc., 255 F.Supp.2d 497, 505 (E.D.Pa.2003). Pennsylvania law has employed the concept since the early days of the Commonwealth. See, e.g., Eddowes v. Niell, 4 Dall. 133, 1 L.Ed. 772 (1793) (applying "gross negligence" standard regarding surety bonds); Hood's Executors v. Nesbit, 2 Dall. 137, 1 L.Ed. 321 (1792) (applying same to allegations of barratry); Purviance v. Angus, 1 Dall. 180, 1 L.Ed. 90 (1786) (applying crassa negligentia (gross neglect or the absence of ordinary care) in an admiralty suit). Nevertheless, although the term has been employed frequently in Pennsylvania case law, it has not been well defined in the civil context. …………………………………………………………….…………..

……... At least in the context of the Mental Health Procedures Act (MHPA), this Court has held clearly and explicitly that "gross negligence" denotes "a form of negligence where the facts support substantially more than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference." Bloom v. DuBois Regional Medical Center, 409 Pa.Super. 83, 597 A.2d 671, 679

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