Phila. judge denies plaintiff's post-trial motions in dog mauling case that went to defense

By Jon Campisi | Sep 12, 2012

A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge has denied a motion for post-trial relief that

had been filed by the plaintiff in a civil case stemming from a dog-mauling incident.

The case stemmed from an October 2009 incident in which 26-year-old Lindsey Baker was severely bitten on her face by a dog who belonged to her friend’s roommate.

After a night out, Baker and her girlfriends returned to the home of Sarah Toner, which she shared with Jennifer Mayhart, and Mayhart’s dog, Milo, the record shows.

While unwinding on the sofa, Baker was bitten on the face and head by the dog, which Baker had fed a treat to just moments before the attack.

Baker sustained injuries to her right eye, face and scalp.

The woman subsequently sued Jennifer Mayhart and both of Mayhart’s parents, Deborah and Gerald Mayhart.

The father was eventually dismissed as a party to the litigation.

Jennifer and her mother, however, remained defendants in the case.

In April of this year, following a weeklong jury trial, a verdict was rendered in favor of both of the remaining defendants, court papers state.

Baker subsequently filed post-trial motions against Jennifer Mayhart only, contending that the plaintiff was entitled to judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a new trial.

In a Sept. 5 order, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Frederica A. Massiah-Jackson denied Baker’s motions.

According to the judicial opinion, judgment notwithstanding the verdict is a “drastic remedy” in Pennsylvania, and is only appropriate where either the evidence is such that “no two reasonable minds could disagree, or the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”

Massiah-Jackson wrote that a new trial should be held only in a case where “truly extraordinary circumstances” exist, and that doesn’t appear to be the case here.

“These jurors had one week to weigh the contradictory evidence and inferences, to consider all of the experts, to judge the credibility of the witnesses, and to draw their ultimate conclusions,” the judge wrote. “A jury is not required to accept everything or anything presented from a witness, even if the testimony is uncontradicted.”

Baker had proceeded to trial on theories of both common law negligence and violations of the Pennsylvania Dog Law, according to the order.

Upon considering the plaintiff’s post-trial motions, Massiah-Jackson wrote that she viewed “multiple deficits” in Baker’s position.

First, Baker failed to address the role and/or responsibilities of Sarah Toner, the roommate, on the night of the incident.

The jury, the judge wrote, could have concluded that Toner was responsible for the decisions made on the evening in question.

Jurors also could have concluded that Baker provoked the dog when she began feeding it treats.

Massiah-Jackson wrote that all of Baker’s post-trial arguments are “simply challenges to the weight of the evidence,” and that Jennifer Mayhart “correctly points out that plaintiff’s contentions rest on a thin reed.”

The judge wrote that under a common law analysis, it was up to a jury to assess whether Baker met her burden of proof to establish unreasonable conduct on the part of the defendant.

In this case, Massiah-Jackson determined, “the jury’s decision does not shock this Court’s sense of justice.”

The judge also shot down Baker’s Dog Law violation argument.

The plaintiff had argued that “considerations of provocation” are relevant solely in a comparative negligence analysis, and in this case Baker asserted that there was no evidence of provocation.

“Neither argument is actually accurate,” Massiah-Jackson wrote. “One of the jury’s first tasks was to evaluate the facts and inferences, then determine whether the dog bite occurred with or without stimulation or irritation or aggravation or annoyance. The jury’s verdict does not shock this Court’s sense of justice.”

Massiah-Jackson went on to write that Baker may be confusing negligence per se with absolute liability, and absolute civil liability for dog injuries is not the law in Pennsylvania.

“Where proof of negligence rests on a violation of the Dog Law, liability does not attach unless the violation is a substantial factor in bringing about the injuries sustained,” the judge wrote. “Thus even if the plaintiff had met her burden to prove a statutory violation, she would then be expected to establish causation before she could be awarded a trial for money damages.”

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