Recently, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court reaffirmed the notion that Pennsylvania judges should accommodate the plaintiff’s procedural misgivings when doing so would promote fairness and justice.
In the case of Jones v. Mercy Suburban Hospital, the plaintiff commenced suit as administratrix of her mother’s estate for wrongful death and survival as a result of medical malpractice. Following years of protracted discovery and motion practice, trial in the matter was ultimately delayed due to an illness affecting plaintiff’s counsel. Less than a month later, the plaintiff again moved the trial court to delay the proceeding, citing her own inability to appear due to illness. The trial court, however, denied plaintiff’s motion to adjourn, and instead dismissed the case in its entirety for failure to prepare for trial.
Recognizing that the trial court’s sua sponte decision completely disposed the case, plaintiff’s counsel took direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Arguing before the three-judge panel, plaintiff’s counsel contended that trial court abused its discretion in coarsely denying the petition for continuance and dismissing the case. Unsurprisingly, the Superior Court agreed, and reaffirmed the accepted belief that Pennsylvania’s procedural rules must be interpreted to promote adjudication on the merits. More specifically, the Superior Court announced unambiguously that Pennsylvania judges may disregard any error or defect in procedure provided the same does not result in substantial prejudice to the other parties. Further, the appellate panel strongly condemned the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case as an improper exercise of the courts’ most severe sanction, and reminded judges throughout the Commonwealth that their decisions must be guided towards a “fair and just” disposition of the matter.
While Jones is a run-of-the-mill procedural appeal, the Superior Court’s approach reinforces the concept that Pennsylvania’s procedural rules are not intended to act as technicalities that undermine the merits of the case. In fact, the opinion in Jones tells quite a different tale that is well known to most Pennsylvania lawyers: there is an exception to every rule, especially for the plaintiff. Let’s hope that the courts demonstrate the same magnanimous leniency and sense of justice when a defense lawyer becomes ill.