PA Supreme Court Dismisses Complaint for Lack of Diligent Service
Civil Litigation Update, a publication of the Pennsylvania Bar Association
In Gussom v. Teagle, 247 A.3d 1046 (Pa. 2021) (Opinion by Baer, J.), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that a trial court has the discretion to dismiss a complaint when a plaintiff fails to prove that she diligently attempted to serve process on a defendant, regardless of whether the plaintiff acted or failed to act intentionally, and where there is no evidence to indicate that the defendant had actual notice of the commencement of the action.
On July 25, 2016, plaintiff-appellant Rasheena Gussom (Gussom) and defendant-appellee Maurice Teagle (Teagle) were involved in a motor vehicle accident. On April 26, 2018, Gussom filed a complaint in the trial court within the applicable statute of limitations alleging that Teagle had negligently caused the accident. On May 9, 2018, Gussom filed an affidavit of non-service with the trial court. On Aug. 22, 2018, almost a month after the statute of limitations would have expired but for the filing of the complaint, Gussom filed a praecipe to reinstate her complaint. On Sept. 10, 2018, Teagle filed preliminary objections to the complaint, claiming that Gussom failed to serve the complaint properly. Gussom did not file a response to the preliminary objections; rather, she again filed a praecipe to reinstate her complaint on Sept. 28, 2018. In October 2018, the trial court granted Teagle’s preliminary objections and dismissed the complaint with prejudice. Gussom filed a motion for reconsideration, which the trial court denied, and she appealed to the Superior Court. A three-judge panel of the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision in an unpublished memorandum. Gussom then appealed to the Supreme Court.
The court noted that prior to the seminal case Lamp v. Heyman, 366 A.2d 882 (Pa. 1976), plaintiffs could file a writ of summons to initiate an action before the statute of limitations expired, and then continually reissue the writ after the statute of limitations had run without notifying the defendant that the plaintiff had commenced the action. Lamp narrowed this potential for abuse by requiring plaintiffs to act diligently to meet their good-faith requirement to serve process upon defendants. The court clarified the Lamp holding in Farinacci v. Beaver Cty. Indus. Dev. Auth., 511 A.2d 757 (Pa. 1986), by stating that (1) plaintiffs carry an evidentiary burden of proving that they made a good-faith effort to ensure that notice of the commencement of actions was served on defendants, and (2) in each case, where noncompliance with Lamp is alleged, the trial court must determine in its sound discretion whether a good-faith effort to effectuate notice was made.
Finally, the court observed that in McCreesh v. City of Phila., 888 A.2d 664 (Pa. 2005), the court held that it “would dismiss only those claims where plaintiffs have demonstrated an intent to stall the judicial machinery or where plaintiffs’ failure to comply with the Rules of Civil Procedure has prejudiced defendant.”
In light of Lamp and its progeny, the court affirmed the Superior Court’s decision, which concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by sustaining Teagle’s preliminary objection and dismissing Gussom’s complaint with prejudice due to her failure to make good-faith efforts to serve the complaint on Teagle. The court found that Gussom failed to prove that she acted diligently in attempting to make good-faith efforts to serve Teagle with notice of the complaint, and there was no evidence of record that Teagle had actual notice of the lawsuit.