Virginia Supreme Court Finds Plaintiffs Were Too Late in Amending Complaint

Virginia personal injury plaintiffs have to be careful in following the procedural rules in any case. In a recent Virginia Supreme Court decision, after a jury found in the plaintiffs’ favor, the Court determined the plaintiffs had amended their pleadings too late and sent their case back for a new trial in their carbon monoxide poisoning case.

CO DetectorThe Facts of the Case

The carbon monoxide detector went off in an apartment rented by four tenants, and a maintenance worker came and replaced the batteries. The alarm sounded again, and the tenants called the gas company. An inspector came and measured the carbon monoxide (CO) levels in the apartment. He found the CO levels were hazardous, turned off the gas supply to the furnace, and “red tagged” the furnace as the suspected source of the leak.

The apartment’s property management company then sent a maintenance worker to the apartment, who stated that he had found a loose vent pipe in the attic, reattached it, and rechecked the CO level. He repaired the vent pipe by using zip screws, which was contrary to manufacturer specifications. A city code enforcement officer later came, who found the CO levels were within the acceptable range and removed the red tag, but he did not go into the attic or inspect the furnace or vents.

About a month later, the carbon monoxide detector went off again. The landlord’s maintenance worker did not find elevated CO readings, but later that day, a state inspector found the CO readings were high and red tagged the furnace again. The landlord then had the furnace replaced, but the CO levels in the apartment remained high. An inspection showed that a duct was not properly connected in the attic and had been venting exhaust.

The tenants brought a claim against the landlord and the property management company, alleging that they were injured by CO poisoning. The defendants did not contest the injuries on appeal. Three of the tenants, who alleged relatively minor injuries, sought $100,000 each in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages. The fourth tenant, who alleged more extensive injuries, sought $5,000,000 in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages. The punitive damages claim was based on the tenants’ assertion that the landlord had been willful and wanton in failing to maintain the furnace and in failing to have competent staff.

The case went to trial, and at the conclusion of the evidence, the court ruled that the tenants had failed to establish the punitive damages claim. The court then allowed the three tenants to increase their requests for compensatory damages to $450,000 each. The jury found in the tenants’ favor and awarded $200,000 to the three tenants and $3,500,000 to the fourth.

The Court’s Decision

On appeal, the defendants argued that the court should not have allowed the tenants to increase their damages requests after the conclusion of the evidence. The Supreme Court of Virginia agreed, finding that the court should not have allowed the tenants to increase their requests for compensatory damages. The court determined that the request was made too late in the trial, and the tenants’ failure to make out a punitive damages claim was not a justification for an amendment at that time. The court sent the case back for a new trial based on this error and others, and it explained that the tenants could request an amendment to the pleadings before a new trial began.

Amendments to Pleadings

A court has discretion to allow amendments to the pleadings at any time before a verdict is given, if it “will operate in favor of justice.” However, the Virginia Supreme Court has stated that an amendment after the conclusion of the evidence denies the defense an understanding of the issues in the case and “promote[s] injustice.” For that reason, plaintiffs have to be careful when pleading their case because an amendment to the pleadings is not guaranteed in any case.

Contact a Personal Injury Attorney

If you have suffered an injury, contact a personal injury attorney as soon as possible. Charles B. Roberts is a personal injury attorney who has represented celebrities and handled high-profile cases that have been featured in newspapers and magazines and on TV and radio. He handles all types of Virginia personal injury cases, including car accidents, medical malpractice, wrongful death, and defective products. If you have suffered an injury of any type in Virginia, call for a free initial consultation at 703-491-7070.

See More Blog Posts:

Court Rejects Argument That Non-Signing Party Was Bound by Arbitration Agreement, Virginia Injury Lawyers Blog, December 27, 2017.

Virginia Product Liability Claims, Virginia Injury Lawyers Blog, January 3, 2018.