Lights Out On Lamp, Court Sheds Light On Service Of Process (PA)
In recent case, Gussom v. Teagle, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court revisited the issue whether a lawsuit should be dismissed due to Plaintiff’s lack of effort to complete service – regardless of Plaintiff’s intent.
On July 25, 2016, Rasheena Gussom and Maurice Teagle were involved in a car accident. Two months before the statute of limitations expired, Gussom filed a civil complaint against Teagle. Gussom attempted to serve Teagle in Philadelphia and then again in Virginia. After the statute of limitations had expired, Gussom filed a praecipe to reinstate the complaint and unsuccessfully attempted to serve Teagle via certified mail. A few months later, Teagle filed preliminary objections to Gussom’s complaint which argued no good faith effort was made to serve him before the statute of limitations expired. The trial court sustained Teagle’s preliminary objections and dismissed Gussom’s complaint with prejudice.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the dismissal of a civil complaint citing Plaintiff failed to make a good faith effort to timely serve the Defendant. On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the rulings of the Superior Court and trial court, therefore dismissing the Plaintiff’s complaint with prejudice.
In its analysis, the Supreme Court revisited the Lamp Rule which originated from Lamp v. Heyman. The Lamp Rule prohibited plaintiffs filing a writ of summons prior to the expiration of the statute of limitation and then making no effort to service the defendant. However, over time the Lamp Rule has been interpreted to dismiss only claims in which plaintiffs have shown intent to stall the judicial process.
The new standard set out in Gussom is that a plaintiff must make a good faith effort to serve process upon a defendant. The plaintiff has the burden of proving they diligently attempted timely service on the defendant, regardless of whether the plaintiff’s actions were intentional. The Gussom Court held the trial court now has full discretion to dismiss a complaint when plaintiff fails to offer proof of attempted service in a timely manner and there is no evidence that Defendant had actual notice. The trial court need not take into account the intent of the Plaintiff nor the prejudice on the defendant when deciding to dismiss a complaint.
Of major import, this case places a higher burden on Plaintiff to show diligent efforts of service, especially after the statute of limitations has expired. Additionally, this case aids Defendants in filing preliminary objections, as prejudice is not a factor in the Gussom decision.
Thanks to Madeline Troutman for her contribution to this article. Should you have any questions, please contact Tom Bracken.