Thursday, March 25, 2021

Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Latest Pronouncement on Service of Process Issues

In the case of Gussom v. Teagle, No. 12 EAP 2020 (Pa. March 25, 2021)(Maj. Op. by Baer, J.)(Wecht, J., Dissenting), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed the Lamp v. Heyman line of cases regarding the completion of service of original process. This issue was last addressed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the McCreesh case back 16 years ago back in 2005. Notably, Justice Max Baer had also issued the McCreesh decision.

In this new decision in Gussom, the Court reviewed the long line of precedent on the issue of whether a lawsuit should be dismissed due to a plaintiff’s failure to engage in a good faith effort to complete service and thereby demonstrating an intent to stall the judicial machinery he or she had initiated.

In Gussom, the Superior Court affirmed a trial court order that dismissed a plaintiff’s Complaint based upon a plaintiff’s failure to timely serve her Complaint and the case was dismissed despite the fact that the plaintiff’s actions did not amount to intentional conduct. See Op. at p. 2.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the rulings of the Superior Court and the trial court thereby dismissing the plaintiff's complaint with prejudice. In so ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court confirmed that the standard of review in this context did not require a finding of intent on the part of the plaintiff or prejudice to the defendant under the analysis develop through Lamp v. Heyman and its progeny.

The standard set out by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Gussom is that a plaintiff must make a good faith effort to diligently and timely serve original process upon a defendant. If plaintiff puts forth credible evidence that they made this attempt, then the requirement is fulfilled. “If a plaintiff does not present such evidence, then she has failed to satisfy her evidentiary burden, regardless of whether her actions (or inaction) were intentional, unintentional or otherwise.” See Op. at p. 17.

The Gussom Court held that “a trial court has the discretion to dismiss a complaint when a plaintiff fails to offer proof that she diligently attempted to serve process on a defendant in a timely manner and there is no evidence to indicate that the defendant had actual notice of the commencement of the action in the relevant time frame, regardless of whether the plaintiff acted or failed to act intentionally.” See Op. at p. 3.

The dissent, written by Justice David N. Wecht, would have overturned the Superior Court’s ruling. The dissent felt that the standard should be intent based and should also require the defendant to show prejudice.

The Majority Opinion in Gussom can be viewed HERE.  The Dissenting Opinion can be viewed HERE.

I send thanks to Attorney Joseph B Mayers of the Mayers Firm, LLC in Plymouth Meeting, PA for bringing this case to my attention.

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