Thursday, August 29, 2013

Judge Minora of Lackawanna County Holds That the Law is Not an Ass

 
"The law is an ass."
 
Charles Dickens
from
Oliver Twist


In his recent August 27, 2013 decision, in the case of White v. The Medical Protective Company, et.al., No. 2010-CV-7058 (C.P. Lacka. Co. Aug. 27, 2013 Minora, J.), Judge Carmen D. Minora of the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas disagreed with Charles Dickens' assessment above in an Opinion addressing a discovery dispute in a medical malpractice action.  
 
According to the Opinion, the discovery dispute arose from an underlying case involving alleged medical malpractice in the delivery and birth of a minor Plaintiff.   That 2003 lawsuit went on to a jury verdict on November 17, 2008 in favor of the Plaintiff in the amount of $20,500,000.00.   That verdict was modified to include delay damages, which increased the verdict to the amount of $27,352,195.21.   This verdict was later affirmed by the Pennsylvania Superior Court.  
 
According to the Opinion, the size of the verdict far surpassed the insurance coverages of the Defendants.  Accordingly, the Defendants assigned their potential causes of action against their insurers and their counsel to the Plaintiff which gave rise to the instant lawsuit before Judge Minora.  
 
Judge Carmen D. Minora
Lackawanna County
Before the Court on this Opinion were disputed Orders issued by the Lackawanna County Special Trial Master.   The specific issue before Judge Minora was the Plaintiff’s Motion to Strike on Procedural Grounds the Defendant’s appeal of the decisions of the Special Trial Master on certain discovery issues.  The particular issue before Judge Minora was whether the Defendant’s appeal was properly filed or was procedurally fatally deficient.
 
The Plaintiff’s argument was that, in order to properly appeal an Order of the Special Trial Master in Lackawanna County, the appellant must present an appeal motion to the designated motions court judge under Lackawanna County Local Rule of Civil Procedure 206.4(c) together with proof of payment of the appropriate fee.  
 
After reviewing Lackawanna County Local Rule 206.4(c) along with Lackawanna County Local Rule 4000.1(b), Judge Minora agreed that the Plaintiff correctly stated the prescribed procedure.  
 
Lackawanna County Local Rule 4000.1(b) provides that “An Order of the Special Trial Master may be appealed de novo by presentation of an appeal motion to the designated Motion Court Judge in accordance with Lacka. Co. R.C.P. 206.4(c) together with proof of payment to the Clerk of Judicial Records of an appeal cost in an amount to be set by the Court from time to time.  The appeal motion shall be filed within ten (10) days of the Order of the Special Trial Master and shall be considered by the Court pursuant to Lacka. Co. R.C.P. 4000.  
 
Judge Minora also stated that, under Lackawanna County Local Rule 206.4(c) as incorporated by reference in Lackawanna County Rule 4000.0(b), one seeking to obtain a Rule to Show Cause in such an appeal must present a Petition to the Motions Court pursuant to Lackawanna County Local Rule 208.3(a) requires the moving party to serve all counsel with a copy of the Motion or Petition that will be presented advising them of a date certain when the presentation will take place and provide, at a minimum, three (3) business days of notice prior to that presentation.  
 
While the Court stated that the Plaintiff’s arguments and positions appeared to be correct, the Court disagreed with the conclusion proposed by the Plaintiff that the appeal was dead and could not be revived. 
 
In reaching this conclusion, Judge Minora noted that it was the Defendant’s contention that they have proceeded in good faith on the appeal but were relying upon an outdated version of the Lackawanna County Local Rules of Civil Procedure that was posted on the Lackawanna County official website.   Judge Minora reviewed the Rules on the website and found it to be an older version that read differently from the current version that was actually in effect, particularly with respect to Local Rule 4001.1.   
 
The Defendants also argued that, in addition to proceeding in good faith, they had, in any event, timely filed their motions on the appeal and paid the appropriate filing fees.  
 
Thus, as stated, the issue before Judge Minora of whether or not the procedural defect resulting from the Defendant’s reliance upon the old Rule was fatal to the appeals.   The Opinion of the court confirmed that it was uncontested by the Plaintiff that the Defendant’s appeals were timely and that all appropriate fees were paid.  
 
Judge Minora additionally stated that the only prejudice to the Plaintiff’s claims presented would be the need to proceed through the appeals process if the Court ruled in favor of the Defendant.  
 
After reviewing the applicable law, including Pa. R.C.P.  126, entitled "Liberal Construction in Application of Rules," the Court overruled the Plaintiff’s Motion to Strike the Appeals and asserted that the “Plaintiff ha[d] clearly elevated process over substance and overstated the consequences of Defendant’s predicament.”  
 
Under Pa. R.C.P. 126, which Judge Minora construed to also apply to to local rules, it is stated that the Rules of Civil Procedure “shall be liberally construed.”   The rule also states that the “Court at every stage of such action or proceeding may disregard any error or defect of procedure which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties.”  
 
Judge Minora concluded his Opinion with a Dickensian reference by stating that “[c]ontrary to Charles Dickens, the law is not an ass.” [Emphasis in Opinion at p. 12].  
 
Judge Minora further stated that “the trial of a lawsuit is not a sporting event where the substantive legal issues are subordinated to the rule of the game.”  He additionally noted that “procedural rules are not ends in themselves, but means whereby justice as expressed in legal principles is administered; they are not to be exalted to the status of substantive objectives requiring rigid adherence.”  
 
Accordingly, Judge Minora ruled that “the Court should not be astute in enforcing technicalities to defect apparently meritorious claims.”   Ultimately, the Court denied the Plaintiff’s Motion to Strike the Appeal of the Defendants from the Orders of the Special Trial Master. 
 

Anyone wishing to review this interesting Opinion issued by Judge Minora in the case of White v. The Medical Protective, et.al. may click this LINK. 
 
 
ADDITIONAL NOTE:
The Civil Rules Committee of the Lackawanna County Bar Association is currently in the process of reviewing the various Lackawanna County Local Rules in a concerted and purposeful effort to come up with a correct and current version of the same.  
 
Once this process is completed, it is anticipated that the updated version of the Lackawanna County Local Rules will be made publicly available on either the Lackawanna County’s website and/or the Lackawanna Bar Association’s website.  
 
If possible, I will also establish a Link to the Lackawanna County Local Rules from Tort Talk as well.
 




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