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PA Appeals Court Holds that Damages for Dragonetti Violations Must be Proven – Not Presumed

July 6, 2016

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Pennsylvania statute 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8351 provides for a cause of action, also known as a <em>Dragonetti </em>action, allowing the defendant in a lawsuit to file suit against a plaintiff for abuse of civil proceedings when litigation is filed frivolously.  On June 24, 2016, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued an opinion clarifying the issue of damages for a <em>Dragonetti</em> violation  in <a href="http://blog.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Miller-Case.pdf">Miller v. St. Luke's University Health Network</a>.
In <em>Miller</em>, the original lawsuit stemmed from the arrest and conviction of one of St. Luke’s nurses, Charles Cullen (“Cullen”), who admitted to killing patients while acting in his capacity as a nurse for St. Luke’s. The families of two patients that were allegedly killed by Cullen sued St. Luke’s for wrongful death.  Ultimately, the two lawsuits were dismissed on summary judgment.  Thereafter, St. Luke’s filed a <em>Dragonetti </em>action against the two families of the patients, alleging both abuse of process and civil conspiracy.  St. Luke’s, however, voluntarily dismissed this <em>Dragonetti</em> action after two years of litigation.
Following the voluntary dismissal of St. Luke’s <em>Dragonetti </em>action against the two families, the two families turned around and filed their own <em>Dragonetti </em>action against St. Luke’s, alleging that it did not have probable cause to file its <em>Dragonetti </em>action against the two families and that it was filed for an improper purpose.  On July 1, 2014, a Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas jury found that St. Luke’s did not have probable cause to bring the <em>Dragonetti </em>action against the two patients’ families.  The jury, however, while finding St. Luke’s violated 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8351, did not award any damages to the two families.  Both St. Luke’s and the families appealed, giving rise to the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s June 24, 2016 opinion.
On appeal, the families argued that if a violation of 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8351 is found, then damages should be presumed otherwise a finding of such a violation would amount to just a “paper judgment.”  Conversely, St. Luke’s argued that 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8351 requires a plaintiff to prove both liability and damages separately.  Moreover, St. Luke’s argued that while § 8353 states that a plaintiff is entitled to damages, § 8354 places the burden on the plaintiff to prove that she actually suffered damages.  Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Superior Court decided in favor of St. Luke’s, ruling that in a <em>Dragonetti </em>action, damages must be proven – not presumed.
Thanks to Erin Connolly for her contribution.
For more information, contact Denise Fontana Ricci at <a href="mailto:dricci@wcmlaw.com">dricci@wcmlaw.com</a>.

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