Appellate Law

Are Appeals Courts Showing More Mercy for Procedural Errors?

, The Legal Intelligencer

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A handful of cases over the past few years have seen Pennsylvania appellate courts taking a stand against the judicial practice of tossing out otherwise meritorious cases on procedural technicalities, but attorneys said it's still an issue, as both trial and appellate courts continue to battle heavy caseloads.

Furthermore, attorneys said, there is a lack of consistency in how much forgiveness appellate courts are willing to extend to parties for procedural errors.

Maureen M. McBride, a partner in the litigation and appellate department of Lamb McErlane in West Chester, Pa., said in an email that she believes appellate courts have been willing to overturn lower court rulings where procedural missteps put one of the parties out of court, but she added that "the courts' generosity is not always meted out consistently."

"We see plenty of cases where strict adherence to the rules (particularly with regard to the rules regarding waiver) is applied—to the great detriment of one of the parties—while, in other cases ... the courts appear to be more sympathetic to the plight of the parties by forgiving a technical misstep," McBride said in the email. "I think for predictability purposes, it would be helpful for the courts to clarify when and under what circumstances technical errors will be overlooked."

As an example of a case where the appellate court was willing to excuse procedural issues in favor of allowing the parties to have their day in court, McBride pointed to the recent unpublished Pennsylvania Superior Court opinion in Jones v. Mercy Suburban Hospital.

In that opinion, issued Jan. 31, a three-judge Superior Court panel unanimously ruled to reverse Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas Senior Judge Arthur R. Tilson's order dismissing a wrongful-death and survival action and remanded the matter for trial.

Judge Anne E. Lazarus, writing for the majority, said that even though the case was more than a decade old and trial had already been delayed several times, Tilson abused his discretion by dismissing the suit when there was no evidence that delaying the trial again would prejudice the defendant hospital and doctors.

Lazarus called Tilson's order "troubling" and said it "placed justice second to arbitrary compliance with procedural rules."

"While we acknowledge that delays can be costly and inconvenient for both the courts and the parties, they are not a reason to deprive either party of its day in court," Lazarus said, calling it "troubling that Judge Tilson dismissed Jones' case because it was old."

"This court has repeatedly held that a court's legitimate interest in controlling its docket should not unnecessarily infringe upon a litigant's right to a trial," Lazarus said, adding that "Tilson's decision to dismiss this case on a technicality placed justice second to arbitrary compliance with procedural rules, and constituted an abuse of his discretion."

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