HARRISBURG — The Superior Court of Pennsylvania has upheld a jury's decision to not award damages to a woman who sued a couple after she was allegedly bitten by their dog, according to a decision filed on April 3.
The appeal was heard by judges Mary Jane Bowes, Mary P. Murray and William H. Platt. Murray penned the court’s decision.
The case revolves around an incident that occurred in 2014 when Margaret Anthony allegedly was bitten by a poodle owned by Sam and Lisa Rizzo.
“Lisa greeted Margaret as Lisa backed out of the driveway, and Margaret approached the car,” Murray wrote in the decision. “The dog barked from the rear driver’s side [of the vehicle] as Margaret approached. The dog then came into contact with Margaret’s right forearm.”
Anthony allegedly saw a doctor that same day and was diagnosed "with avulsion, or tearing of the skin," according to the decision.
Anthony filed suit against the Rizzos, claiming negligence. During the trial court’s proceedings, she testified that the dog lunged out of the car window and bit her twice on the forearm, causing her to bleed and her skin to scar. Anthony claimed that she also suffered mental anguish and embarrassment because of the incident.
Lisa Rizzo, for her part, told the trial court that Anthony rested her arm on the window while the dog was barking and the injury was a minor scratch with minimal bleeding.
“She stated that she offered to wipe the affected area with a tissue, but Margaret said she planned to clean it with alcohol inside Lisa’s home,” Murray wrote in the decision.
A jury, however, found that the Rizzos and Anthony were equally negligent and “that the total amount of damages sustained by Margaret as a result of the incident was $0,” according to the appellate court’s decision.
Anthony appealed the decision, arguing that the trial court “erred in charging the jury with an instruction on factual cause when it was undisputed that Margaret suffered some injury as a result of the incident.”
Factual causation is defined as a circumstance or act that causes an event to take place. In other words, the event would not have occurred if the circumstance or act in question did not happen.
Anthony claimed in her appeal that the trial court’s instructions caused confusion and failed “to sufficiently guide the jury in its deliberations.” Anthony also argued that the jury was required to award damages after finding that the Rizzos were negligent and that their negligence a factual cause of her harm.
According to the appellate court’s decision, the trial court instructed the jury that “‘[i]n order for the [appellants] to recover in this case, the [Rizzos’] negligent conduct must have been a factual cause in bringing about the harm… To be a factual cause, the conduct must have been an actual real factor in causing the harm, even if the result is unusual or unexpected… The fact that some other causes—the fact that some other causes concur with the [Rizzos’] negligence in producing an injury does not relieve the [Rizzos] from liability, as long as their own negligence is a factual cause of the injury.”
The appellate judges, however, rejected Anthony's arguments, ruling that “there is no right to have any particular form of instruction given” as long as it “clearly and accurately explains the relevant law.”
“Upon review of the charge as a whole, we conclude that the trial court provided an adequate instruction for factual cause to sufficiently guide the jury in its deliberations,” Murray wrote in the decision. “Even if an error occurred, we would agree with the trial court’s conclusion that such [an] error would be harmless because the jury found that the Rizzos’ negligence was a factual cause of the harm to Margaret.”
The appellate judges also disagreed with Anthony’s argument that the jury was required to award damages.
“[The] appellants did not offer any expert testimony in support of their claim of compensable pain, relying exclusively on fact witnesses,” Murray wrote in the decision. “The trial court opinion thoroughly addresses and refutes [the] appellants’ contentions.”