A Lackawanna County judge has issued a harshly worded opinion on a plaintiff’s post-trial motions to a defense verdict criticizing the plaintiff’s attorney for misrepresenting facts about the trial in launching a "baseless" attack on the court’s integrity.
In a 26-page opinion, Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge Robert A. Mazzoni dismissed all of the challenges lodged by attorney Michael J. Pisanchyn Jr. in a motion for post-trial relief stemming from an auto-accident case in which both parties said the other one blew the red light at the intersection in question.
Claiming the attorney misrepresented the record, Mazzoni said the challenges — which included accusations that the court advocated a defense position — were unlike anything he’d ever seen.
"The court finds itself, for the first time, in an awkward position of defending itself from a totally baseless attack on its integrity in a rather lame attempt to seek reversal," Mazzoni said, concluding his opinion.
Reached for comment, Pisanchyn said he made clear to the court during oral argument that he knew filing the post-trial motion, and taking up the issues he did, would by no means help his legal career. Instead, he said, he filed the motion because it was "the right thing to do."
Pisanchyn said he and his client have not yet determined whether to take an appeal in the case.
The plaintiff’s motion and a supporting brief boil down to three points: It alleges the court improperly blocked certain evidence from reaching the jury, the court admonished Pisanchyn in front of the jury and instilled a bias against him, and the court improperly instructed the jury on contributory negligence. All point to relief in the form of a new trial, the plaintiff argued.
In his opinion, Mazzoni also criticized Pisanchyn for calling into question the court’s bias and prejudice related to Pisanchyn’s allegations that Mazzoni had a personal relationship with the jury foreman.
Mazzoni said the foreman, who he identified as Richard M. Mahon, was actually the son of a deceased man who was a tipstaff for a retired Lackawanna County judge.
"In a desperate attempt to attain a reversal in this case, plaintiffs counsel Pisanchyn has elected to resort to misrepresentations that have no foundation in the record or otherwise," Mazzoni said. "The record is devoid of any objection."
"The unavoidable inference that one may glean from this shallow and baseless representation is that the court had somehow manipulated the results of this case through a jury," he went on. "This is an allegation that should not be overlooked and should not be considered lightly."
In many of the trial points Pisanchyn challenged in his motion for post-trial relief and supporting brief, Mazzoni said the attorney had failed to object during trial when he had the chance.
Reached for comment, Pisanchyn emailed the Law Weekly the following statement:
"It is with great distress that I filed the motion for post-trial relief in the Eisbacher matter," Pisanchyn said. "As I explained during oral argument to the trial court, I do not in any way believe that me filing this motion is going to help my career. However, sometime[s] the ‘easy thing is not the right thing’ to do. Under the facts of the case, I do believe that filing the motion was the ‘right thing to do.’"
Defense counsel in the case, Daniel E. Cummins of Foley, Comerford & Cummins in Scranton, declined to comment on the court’s March 15 ruling on the post-trial motions.
However, after the defense verdict came back in October, Cummins — who writes a regular column for the Law Weekly —told the Law Weekly that the plaintiff’s "rude presentation and demeanor may turn off a jury and cause them to question her credibility."
The plaintiff was Jessica Eisbacher, whom the jury found to be 60 percent negligent for the accident that caused her injuries, thereby preventing her from recovering for them. Both Eisbacher and defendant Richard J. Davidson claimed the other person ran a red light, and that they had a green light, in their Halloween collision more than four years ago.
"She sweetened up for the jury," Cummins said back in October, referring to Eisbacher.
Cummins’ statements weren’t the only allegations of an unfavorable demeanor. Following the October 5, 2012, defense verdict, Pisanchyn accused the court in court papers of admonishing him in front of the jury while one of his witnesses was testifying, questioning him on his cross-examination of a defense witness in front of the jury, and making other adversarial remarks to the plaintiff’s lawyer in front of the jury.
Mazzoni responded by saying Pisanchyn appeared to intentionally misrepresent facts "with a corresponding purpose to distort the facts and to mislead the reader." In this case, the primary reader was Mazzoni.
In the case of Eisbacher v. Davidson, the first issue Mazzoni addressed was whether the court improperly precluded the plaintiff from introducing a statement Davidson made to his insurance adjuster in which Davidson said he thought he had a green light and in which he admitted to facing sun glare during the accident. The statement was read in lieu of the adjuster testifying herself.
But Mazzoni said the statement was, in fact, read onto the record. Providing relevant portions of the trial transcript, the judge said Pisanchyn’s framing of the issue and request for relief were based on a "complete fabrication" of the facts.
Mazzoni’s opinion quotes the court’s reading of the adjuster’s statement to the jury as the following: "Mr. Davidson, the defendant in this case, believed he had a green light. He admits that he had sun glaring at him. He confirmed that he was rotated and spun around and collided with a Mr. Russel."
The plaintiff’s motion quotes Davidson as telling the adjuster that he was "’blinded by sun glare.’"
Pisanchyn’s next challenge related to Mazzoni’s conduct while Eisbacher’s mother, Lucille Eisbacher, was on the witness stand. Namely, he argued the court "repeatedly admonished" him within earshot of the jury during a sidebar about the scope of Lucille Eisbacher’s testimony, "thereby instilling a bias in the jury against the plaintiff." He highlighted the court’s "tone and demeanor" throughout the exchange in addition to what was actually said.
Mazzoni responded that Pisanchyn did not follow the court’s directive regarding the scope of the witnesses’ testimony and that Pisanchyn failed to object to the court’s ruling or the manner in which it was communicated. He noted the transcript shows it was the court that told Pisanchyn to "keep it down" so the jury would not hear the interaction.
Mazzoni continued, addressing instances where the court requested that Pisanchyn let witnesses finish their answers before asking another question, an instance where Pisanchyn asked one witness if he had directions back to Philadelphia (Mazzoni said the only purpose behind such a comment would be to bias the jury against a nonlocal professional or make the witness look stupid), Pisanchyn’s "self-serving" characterization of a witness as an "independent witness," and other challenges, dismissing them all.
The last issue the motion raised was a challenge regarding the court’s jury instruction on the issue of contributory negligence. In it, the plaintiff, through Pisanchyn, argued the evidence showed Eisbacher used due care when entering the intersection and there was no evidence about the effective speed limit or that Jessica Eisbacher was speeding. The motion said Pisanchyn objected to the jury charge, which included the issue of contributory negligence and instructions as to a duty to keep a proper lookout.
The opinion said the record shows there was no objection, however, quoting Pisanchyn as saying "the charge is acceptable, none, your honor." Therefore, the issue was waived, Mazzoni said.
However, he went on to say the defendant and another witness testified as to the speed limit and that Eisbacher was impeached with her deposition testimony saying she did not recall whether she looked both ways as she approached the intersection. The dynamics of the collision, or the conflicting testimony regarding the positioning of the car, also lent to a jury instruction on contributory negligence.
In his emailed statement, Pisanchyn said the opinion, "scowling as it may be," did not reflect the court’s resenting him or trying to embarrass him.
(Copies of the 26-page opinion in Eisbacher v. Davidson, PICS No. 13-0672, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •