Superior Court remands wrongful death action to Allegheny County court

By Nicholas Malfitano | Nov 30, 2016

HARRISBURG – By order of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, a wrongful death action is headed back to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.

On Nov. 28, Judge Lillian Harris Ransom ruled the order of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas would be reversed, and further proceedings in Michael Sonoga’s case against Preston Ford, Inc. and Preston Hyundai of Sharon would be remanded to the trial court – for not examining the full evidentiary record before granting a motion for summary judgment.

Michael Sonoga acts as the executor and estate representative for decedent Elsie Sonoga.

Elsie Sonoga purchased a new Hyundai Sonata in December 2010, and Sonoga was driving when the car accelerated backwards without her control. She made an appointment to have the brakes examined and informed the representative that during the incident, green and red lights on the dashboard were illuminated.

On July 13, 2011, Sonoga and her sister Theresa Magdits went to the appointment at the dealership, where a representative told Sonoga no one was available to look at the car, and she could either leave it for further inspection or bring it back on another date. Sonoga chose to bring the car back another day, as she did not have a ride home.

As Sonoga drove home, the Sonata accelerated out of her control, and she cried out to her sister that she could not stop the car. The Sonata collided with a vehicle stopped at a red light, before striking a second vehicle. Sonoga was killed in the accident.

On March 5, 2012, Michael Sonoga filed a wrongful death and survival action against the defendants, featuring claims of negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty – believing the 2011 Hyundai Sonata driven by Sonoga was defective.

During discovery, the plaintiff produced the expert report of Thomas Lacek, P.E., which opined that the floor mat of the Sonata may have covered the accelerator, causing it to stick. Furthermore, the plaintiff deposed the service representative who spoke to Sonoga on the day of the accident, who felt the problem was serious and claimed to have offered Sonoga a ride home, which she declined.

The defendants made an oral motion for summary judgment, arguing without expert testimony as to causation, defendant would be unable to establish a cause of action for any of the counts raised.

The plaintiff argued expert testimony was unnecessary and there was a factual dispute over whether the defendants’ representatives had warned Sonoga of the danger in driving the car or offered her a rental car or ride home.

On Jan. 15, the trial court entered an order granting the oral motion for summary judgment for the reasons it had stated on the record and on Jan. 28, the trial court entered an order dismissing plaintiff’s complaint with prejudice and directing the Department of Court Records to enter a judgment in favor of defendants against the plaintiff.

“Plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in determining that an expert was required to opine on the issue of causation. Plaintiff avers that because of this predetermination, the trial court failed to consider the full evidentiary record. We agree,” Ransom said.

“A plaintiff may establish causation with any evidence, direct or circumstantial, which tends to show the defendant’s actions as the legal cause of harm. Expert testimony is not needed in every general negligence case, as it is in medical malpractice cases, however, “expert testimony becomes necessary when the subject matter of the inquiry is one involving special skills and training not common to the ordinary lay person,” Ransom added.

Ransom explained a plaintiff “may establish causation with any evidence, direct or circumstantial, which tends to show the defendant’s actions as the legal cause of harm”, but in certain situations where physical injury is involved, “it is possible for a jury to reasonably infer causation from the circumstances of an accident or occurrence and expert testimony is not needed.”

“Sonoga cites the following evidence, which was sufficient to establish causation if believed by a fact finder, namely that 1) Sonoga informed defendant of a previous instance where the brakes had failed; she had made an appointment to have her breaks examined; 2) Impton had serious concerns about the safety of the car; and, 3) in the moments immediately preceding the crash, Sonoga exclaimed that she could not engage the breaks,” Ransom said.

In this case, Ransom stated there was “sufficient evidence of causation without expert testimony.”

Ransom further opined a lack of expert testimony as to causation was not fatal to the plaintiff’s claims, since a jury “could have reasonably inferred that a malfunction was the cause of plaintiff’s injuries.”

“It was thus error for the trial court to grant an oral motion for summary judgment without examining the entirety of the record. Accordingly, we reverse the order of the court and remand for further proceedings. Order reversed; case remanded; jurisdiction relinquished,” Ransom said.

The plaintiffs are represented by Jaime D. Jackson in Lancaster.

The defendants are represented by William R. Haushalter and Miles A. Kirshner of Margolis Edelstein and Clem C. Trischler Jr. of Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti, all in Pittsburgh.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania case 209 WDA 2016

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas case GD-12-4034

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at

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