Appeals court rules Dragonetti Act protects attorney from opposing counsel's pursuit of sanctions

By Scott Holland | Mar 19, 2019

HARRISBURG — A Pennsylvania appeals court has ruled that a lower court incorrectly interpreted the Dragonetti Act in deciding to let a request for sanctions against defense counsel in a medical malpractice trial proceed.

The underlying 2009 medical malpractice lawsuit involved a woman who died of lung cancer and specifically whether an emergency room staff failed to obtain a recommended CT scan that might have revealed the disease.

The defense counsel for the doctor and medical practice was Nancy Raynor and Raynor & Associates. Representing the plaintiffs were Matthew D’Annunzio of Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg LLP; and William Hill and Joseph Messa Jr. of Messa & Associates.

During a trial that began in 2012, Raynor was told she couldn’t introduce evidence about the decedent’s smoking history. However, one of her witnesses mentioned the woman’s smoking history. 

After hearing objections from the plaintiff’s attorney, Judge Paul Panepinto denied a request for a mistrial and gave the jury curative instructions. The jury awarded the woman’s estate $190,000.

Panepinto later granted Messa and D’Annunzio’s request for a new trial, which the Superior Court of Pennsylvania upheld in November 2013. The following March, Panepinto conducted hearings on possible sanctions for Raynor. After he agreed to sanctions, Messa and D’Annunzio and their firms requested almost $1.35 million in sanctions. Panepinto approved more than $946,000 in sanctions.

The Superior Court vacated those sanctions in June 2016. Raynor then filed her complaint in April 2017, saying the Messa and D’Annunzio firms abused the legal process by pursuing sanctions despite knowing the facts didn’t support their position, which she alleged constituted an attempt to destroy her professional livelihood and personal life.

After the trial court dismissed Raynor’s complaint with prejudice, she appealed to the Superior Court, which issued its opinion March 8. Judge Kate Ford Elliott wrote the opinion, with John Bender and Anne Lazarus concurring.

The panel said both a civil lawsuit and a motion for contempt requesting sanctions jeopardize an individual’s right of property, and that the trial court incorrectly interpreted the Dragonetti Act in deciding to let the request for sanctions proceed.

The panel also said Raynor has standing to bring her complaint because although she was not a plaintiff in the actual medical malpractice suit, she was the defendant in the contempt proceedings that resulted in sanctions.

Raynor also accused the trial court of erring in sustaining certain preliminary objections to her complaint. At the time, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was considering a constitutional challenge to the Dragonetti Act, ultimately finding it valid. The panel did not address this issue, saying the Supreme Court finding made the issue moot.

However, the panel sided with Messa and D’Annunzio by finding defendants can’t be held liable for abuse of process if they’re only carrying a process to an authorized conclusion, even if there is obvious personal animus, as Raynor alleged. The trial court was correct to allow and sustain objections Messa and D’Annunzio raised in this area, the panel determined.

The Superior Court remanded Raynor’s complaint for further proceedings and relinquished its jurisdiction.

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