FraudA litigant in a contract dispute recently appealed from a judgment which modified the amount in favor of Appellee from $147,000 to $132,000.

Inter alia, the litigant (“Appellant”) contended that the trial court erred in its interpretation of the contract, improperly precluding its expert testimony.

Appellant sold a pizza shop to Appellee for $625,000.

After the deal was signed but it settled, the parties made several written addendums for renovations, which were to be completed at Appellant’s expense.

The parties settled, and Appellant conveyed the property to Appellee, but then Appellant breached his obligation to pay rent and complete the agreed upon renovations.

As a result, Appellee filed a complaint against Appellant asserting breach of contract and fraud.

At a bench trial, Appellee presented a general contractor as a fact witness to testify on a construction proposal he completed for the property.

The witness testified that he estimated the value of the renovations based upon blueprints submitted to him by Appellee.

Appellant testified on his own behalf and admitted he failed to pay rent pursuant to the Agreement. He agreed with Appellee that he owed $18,000 as a result.

Further, Appellant admitted that he breached the Agreement by failing to complete any of the contracted renovations to the property.

However, he disputed the scope and cost of the work in Appellee’s contractor’s proposal. To support this, Appellant presented his own proposal estimating the costs of labor and materials for the renovations.

Appellant offered his own estimate on the renovations but offered no evidence on the costs. Appellant also wanted to present the testimony of a general contractor to opine as to the renovations he was obligated to complete under the contract.

The trial court precluded the general contractor ‘s opinion testimony, following Appellee’s objection to Appellant’s failure to disclose the general contractor ‘s expert status prior to trial.

The trial court found in favor of Appellee for $139,000…$121,000 for failure to make the repairs mandated under the Agreement, and $18,000 for unpaid rent pursuant to the Agreement.

Appellee filed a motion to include pre-judgment interest in the verdict, and Appellant didn’t respond. The trial court then corrected the verdict to $147,000.

In response, Appellant filed a post-trial motion disputing the trial court’s exclusion of its expert testimony of the general contractor.

The trial court granted Appellant’s motion in part by modifying the verdict from $147,000 down to $132,000 but denied its claim that it erred by excluding the general contractor’s expert testimony.

On appeal, Judge Jack A. Panella of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania noted that Appellant contended that the trial court erred by prohibiting his fact witness from testifying as an expert witness.

Appellant argued that Appellee’s failure to pursue the identification of expert witnesses pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 4003.5 through discovery, prior to trial, precluded the trial court’s prohibition of the general contractor’s status as an expert witness.

The standard for qualification of an expert witness is a liberal one, Judge Panella explained. However, when considering the admission of expert evidence, the judge said the appellate court’s standard of review is very narrow—“an evidentiary ruling must not only be erroneous, but also harmful or prejudicial to the complaining party.”

Here, Judge Panella noted that the trial court thoroughly explained its decision to prohibit the general contractor from testifying as an expert.

Appellee’s counsel requested, through discovery, that Appellant produce the documents intended to be introduced at trial.

Appellant’s general contractor didn’t prepare an expert report. Because of this, the trial court found that Appellant was able to avoid identification of the general contractor as an expert, and that this caused Appellee unfair surprise.

Further, without the benefit of a curriculum vitae offered as evidence or any further elaboration on his experience, the general contractor wasn’t qualified to offer expert opinions as to the value of the work that was contemplated under the contract or criticism of Appellee’s estimate.

Judge Panella noted that while Appellant was correct that Appellee didn’t request the identification of expert witnesses pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 4003.5, this didn’t lead to the automatic conclusion that the trial court should have allowed the general contractor to testify as a witness.

The trial court found a number of reasons—including a lack of curriculum vitae, Appellant’s attempt to “game” the discovery process, and limited qualifications—to support why the general contractor shouldn’t be confirmed as an expert witness.

As such, there was no error of law in the trial court’s reasoning for excluding this witness’s expert testimony. The judgment was affirmed.