Pietragallo Gordon Beats $525K Malpractice Verdict

, The Legal Intelligencer

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The Pennsylvania Superior Court has upheld the overturning of a $525,000 legal malpractice verdict against Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti, making moot the firm's request for a new trial in the event its judgment notwithstanding the verdict was reversed.

In September 2011, an Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas jury found Pietragallo Gordon breached its contract to plaintiff Robert Lewis by allowing a cohabitation agreement Lewis signed to provide for annual payments to his girlfriend in the event of a breakup rather than the one-time lump-sum payment Lewis preferred. The jury found Lewis didn't breach his end of the contract and awarded him $525,000 in damages.

But the trial court, in granting JNOV in August 2012, found the evidence didn't support the jury's verdict because Lewis failed to read a note from a Pietragallo Gordon attorney saying two versions of the contract were provided for him to sign—one with a lump-sum clause and another providing for annual payments.

The trial court therefore denied Lewis' request for post-judgment interest. Pietragallo Gordon later asked the trial judge to rule on its outstanding motion for a new trial in the alternative to JNOV so that the issue would be resolved in the event Lewis successfully appealed the entry of JNOV.

In October 2012, the trial court denied that motion, ruling a new trial wouldn't be warranted if the JNOV was reversed. Pietragallo Gordon appealed the order regarding a new trial and Lewis appealed the entry of JNOV.

Now the three-judge panel of the Superior Court has affirmed the trial judge in a memorandum opinion, ruling it was in fact Lewis who breached the contract rather than Pietragallo Gordon.

"As the trial court states, 'communication is a two-way street,'" Judge Kate Ford Elliott said for the Superior Court. "We agree that Lewis breached the contract with [Pietragallo Gordon] by failing to read critical correspondence from attorney Kelleher and failing to read or seek clarification of the unfinished document prior to signing it."

The court further ruled Lewis failed to prove actual damages. Ford Elliott said that Lewis' girlfriend at the time, Jill Neely, wanted the annual payments in the event their relationship ended. Ford Elliott said there was no indication Neely would have agreed to the lump-sum payment Lewis preferred.

"If the agreement had provided for a lump-sum payment, Neely might not have signed it," Ford Elliott said. "In this regard, Lewis' damages were speculative."

James R. Schadel of Weinheimer, Schadel & Haber in Pittsburgh represented Pietragallo Gordon. Maurice A. Nernberg Jr. of Nernberg & Associates in Pittsburgh represented Lewis.

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