Wrongful death case arising from fatal heart attack after restaurant fight remanded to Phila. Common Pleas Court

By Jon Campisi | Apr 18, 2014

A U.S. District Court judge has granted a plaintiffs’ motion to remand a

wrongful death case arising from a man’s death following a fight at a downtown Philadelphia hotel.

Judge Jan DuBois, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, ruled on April 16 that a civil action brought by the family of the late Vincent V. Sannuti belongs in state court, despite the fact that the defendants had removed the action to the federal venue soon after its filing.

Background on the case shows that Sannuti’s children and son-in-law filed suit late last year against the Sheraton Hotel and other corporate and individual defendants over the patriarch’s Oct. 7, 2012, death following an incident at an eatery inside the place of lodging.

Sannuti and several family members were dining at Taste Restaurant at the hotel following a wedding reception for Sannuti’s niece when a large fight broke out between various intoxicated patrons, according to the lawsuit.

Sannuti, his children and his son-in-law were caught in the middle of the fight, and within seconds of the start of the melee, they managed to escape the scene.

Once outside the hotel, however, Sannuti collapsed to the ground due to an apparent heart attack.

He was pronounced dead a short time later.

In their lawsuit, which was filed at Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas, the family alleges counts of negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, wrongful death and survival action.

The plaintiffs are citizens of Pennsylvania and New Jersey respectively while the individual defendants are residents of Pennsylvania.

The individual defendants are identified as Andrew Heiss, the hotel’s food and beverage manager; Robert Dunn, a security worker; and Leonard Buckley, the general manager.

The plaintiffs are listed as Nicholas B. Sannuti, Vincent A. Sannuti, Kristi L. Servello, Chelsea P. Sannuti and Gina Servello.

In their petition seeking to remove the case to federal court, the defendants argued that diversity of citizenship, a requirement for removal, exists because the individuals named are nominal defendants whose citizenship must be disregarded in determining diversity jurisdiction, court records show.

Earlier this year, the plaintiffs filed a motion opposing transfer, arguing that the individual defendants are not nominal defendants and therefore, there is no diversity in citizenship warranting a move to U.S. District Court.

The defendants essentially argued that the plaintiffs have not alleged a cognizable claim because they don’t allege any specific tortious act by the individual defendants.

The plaintiffs disagreed, contending that under Pennsylvania law, they stated claims against the individual defendants pursuant to the “participation” theory of liability, which says that a corporate employee acting within the scope of his or her employment can be held liable for torts committed by the corporation in which he or she personally participates.

Liability under the participation theory, however, attaches only to torts arising out of an employee’s “misfeasance,” the judge pointed out in his memorandum.

Allegations of “nonfeasance,” which is when an employee merely should have known about the consequences of the liability-creating corporate act, is insufficient to impose liability under the participation theory, DuBois noted.

The defendants argued that a “close reading” of the lawsuit reveals that the plaintiffs only allege nonfeasance.

DuBois rejected this argument.

“The Court cannot determine, on the present state of the record, that the individual defendants were not involved in misfeasance,” DuBois wrote. “Accordingly, defendants have failed to establish federal diversity jurisdiction, and the Court grants Plaintiffs’ Motion to Remand to the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County.”

In their complaint, the plaintiffs argue that the individual defendants served alcohol to visibly intoxicated patrons, caused there to be overcrowding conditions in the restaurant, and allowed “relatively minor and controllable verbal and/or physical confrontations to escalate into assaults and crimes of violence.”

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