• No Harm...No Foul
  • December 21, 2009
  • Law Firm: Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin - Philadelphia Office
  • A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in Cruz v. Princeton Insurance Co., 2008 Pa. LEXIS 851, has brought to the forefront the abuse of process claim. An "abuse of process" is defined as the use of legal process against another primarily to accomplish a purpose for which it is not designed. To establish a claim for abuse of process it must be proven that (1) the defendant used a legal process against the plaintiff (2) primarily to accomplish a purpose for which the process was not designed and (3) harm has been caused to the plaintiff.

    In Cruz, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision that found an insurance company and its law firm guardianship petition regarding a child whose parents would not accept a $7 million settlement offer was not an abuse of process. By way of background, the underlying case involved a medical malpractice action that the Cruzes brought against Northeastern Hospital and two physicians because their son Adam suffered permanent injuries during his birth. Although the doctors were found not negligent, a jury rendered a $10.8 million verdict against the hospital. During post-trial settlement negotiations, the Cruzes rejected Princeton Insurance Company's $7 million settlement offer. Thereafter, counsel for Princeton Insurance Company filed a guardian ad litem petition, arguing that a guardian be appointed to represent Adam's interests and to evaluate the settlement on the grounds that the verdict could be reversed on appeal and because the Cruzes were allegedly in disagreement about accepting the settlement. The petition was denied, but the Cruzes did accept the $7.1 million settlement offer.

    In the abuse of process action, the Cruzes claimed damages for "mental anguish, anxiety and upset" caused by the filing of the petition. The lower court granted summary judgment on behalf of Princeton Insurance Company and its law firm, holding that the Cruzes failed to produce evidence to establish an abuse of process since their evidence suggested nothing more than a dispute over the settlement amount. Thereafter, the Cruzes filed a notice of appeal challenging the lower court's analysis of the second prong of the abuse of process claim as to whether the process was used primarily to accomplish a purpose for which it was not designed.

    The Superior Court majority found that the lower court judge did not commit an error of law or abuse by granting the motion for summary judgment on behalf of the defendants. To the contrary, the Superior Court reasoned that a guardian ad litem could be appointed in only extraordinary cases and the fact that this case did not present such extraordinary circumstances did not give rise to an abuse of process action. Judge Orie Melvin concurred with the majority opinion and acknowledged in her opinion that abuse of process cases frequently turn on the second element of the three-part conjunctive test and, therefore, Pennsylvania courts have had little opportunity to discuss the third element of harm caused to the plaintiff. However, the court in Shriner v. Moriarty, 706 A.2d 1228 (Pa. Super. 1998) did make an attempt to address the harm element. In Shiner, although the court reversed the verdict on the plaintiff's abuse of process claim on the grounds that it was preempted by the federal bankruptcy code, the court arguably suggested that emotional harm was compensable in an abuse of process action by affirming the award of damages for emotional distress without distinguishing between the three different theories presented: intentional infliction of emotional distress, abuse of process, and intentional interference with contractual relations. See id. at 1239 (noting that expert medical testimony is not required to establish a claim for abuse of process). Thus, even with this court's attempt to focus slightly on the harm element, it did not definitively set any particular standard for Pennsylvania courts to follow in subsequent abuse of process actions.

    Judge Melvin was critical of the Cruzes' deposition testimony and admitted they had a basis to be upset by the guardian ad litem petition, but she did not feel this evidence was sufficient to prove they suffered a compensable degree of harm. To the contrary, Judge Debra M. Todd believed there was some evidence of emotional harm to the Cruzes and felt that a jury could reasonably come to a different interpretation and conclude that Princeton and its law firm were seeking a guardian ad litem not for the primary benefit of Adam, but for the primary benefit of orchestrating a settlement, and that such a use of the guardianship process would not be, in her view, a "legitimate object." Moreover, in her opinion, the fact that Princeton argued the Cruzes failed to cite any case law suggesting that "upset" was a sufficient degree of compensable emotional harm was not conclusive as a matter of law and should be a question raised to the jury.

    Despite such differences in opinion that the Cruz case raised with respect to the third element of harm in an abuse of process action, it appears that Judge Todd's dissenting opinion reflects the thought process of the Supreme Court. After granting the petition for allowance of appeal filed by the Cruzes, the Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court's decision in part to the extent that it held there was no genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the use of the process was primarily used for a purpose for which it was not designed. Nonetheless, the Court did remand the case back to Superior Court for further consideration of the harm element. Therefore, although no precedent has been set with regard to the harm element of the abuse of process action, the Supreme Court has sent a wake up call to the lower courts that, in effect, calls for them to take a closer look into deciding abuse of process actions.