Blank Rome and longtime client St. Luke’s University Health Network were each found by a jury Tuesday of improperly suing family members of two former patients who had sued the hospital over allegations a former nurse killed their loved ones, but the firm and health system were not assessed any damages.
The case was one of competing Dragonetti actions that all stem from the arrest and conviction of former nurse Charles Cullen, who admitted to killing several patients at a number of area hospitals where he worked, including six patients at St. Luke’s, according to court papers in two consolidated suits against Blank Rome and St. Luke’s.
Harry H. Miller, as the executor of the estate of Regina C. Miller, and Leslie Hall, as executor of the estate of Marilyn Hall, sued St. Luke’s on the theory that Cullen was also responsible for their family members’ deaths when they were patients of St. Luke’s. Their experts, however, were unable to show to within a reasonable degree of medical certainty that Cullen was responsible for the deaths of Regina Miller and Marilyn Hall and they were not two of the people Cullen had admitted to killing. The trial court granted the hospital’s motion for summary judgment in those two cases, though other cases against the hospital related to Cullen continued. Many of the cases were being handled for the plaintiffs by Cohen & Feeley, according to the complaint in Hall v. St. Luke’s University Health Network.
After the Hall and Miller cases against St. Luke’s were dismissed on summary judgment, the hospital, through its attorneys at Blank Rome, sued Leslie Hall and Harry Miller, along with their lawyers at Cohen & Feeley, for Dragonetti Act violations, abuse of process and civil conspiracy, according to the complaint in Hall.
The cases against Hall and Miller were voluntarily dismissed by the hospital two years later, in September 2013. Hall and Miller, through their attorneys at Haines & Associates, then brought their own Dragonetti action against St. Luke’s and Blank Rome for continuing a lawsuit against the two despite allegedly having stated publicly that the intent wasn’t to collect damages but to argue for tort reform, according to the complaint. The plaintiffs also alleged the underlying suit against them was designed to intimidate.
“The predicate lawsuit was designed to strike fear into the hearts of these families by showing them that to the extent they did not prevail at trial, St. Luke’s would sue these families, just as St. Luke’s sued the Halls and others,” the plaintiffs said in the Hall complaint.
On Tuesday afternoon, a Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas jury in Judge Edward D. Reibman’s courtroom handed up its verdict in the Hall and Miller cases. The 12-member jury found after about six hours of deliberation over two days that St. Luke’s and Blank Rome did not have probable cause to file the suit against Hall and Miller and that the suits were filed for an improper purpose, according to the verdict sheet. But the jury awarded zero damages and found the defendants’ conduct was not outrageous, according to the verdict sheet.
James Smith of Blank Rome, along with attorneys Brian Paszamant and Lewis Schlossberg, represented the firm and the hospital.
“The award of no damages demonstrates that St. Luke’s and Blank Rome appropriately defended the latest of these individuals’ repeated lawsuits against St. Luke’s and the firm,” Smith said. “Our client has stated publicly that it is very pleased with the outcome of this latest suit as are we.”
He said there were no plans to appeal.
St. Luke’s and Blank Rome argued that the plaintiffs had no compensable damages for a Dragonetti action. Smith also noted the only purpose of filing the suits against Hall and Miller was to recover damages the hospital suffered from Hall and Miller suing the hospital on what it claimed was frivolous grounds.
Clifford E. Haines, who tried the case with associate Danielle Weiss, said his clients didn’t have monetary damages from the underlying Dragonetti action because Cohen & Feeley handled the defense costs for that suit. Instead, they were seeking damages for emotional distress, mental anguish, humiliation and embarrassment, according to the complaint.
Haines said he thinks the law provides for damages for his client when liability is found, but said he and the judge disagreed on that point. Haines said he will seek damages through post-trial motions.
“At one level, damages were hard and I probably made the mistake of telling the jury that damages were not that great because I was looking for punitive damages,” Haines said. “I think that too was an open question.”
Haines said the verdict sheet only spoke to one element of punitive damages—outrageous conduct—rather than noting what he said was an easier element to prove, which was reckless conduct. Haines said that was another area where he and the judge had disagreed.
“To me, there is a decided difference between that which is outrageous and that which is reckless,” Haines said.
Despite not winning any damages, Haines said this was a “tremendous victory” in what it does for the people who are still facing abuse of process suits from St. Luke’s.
Cohen & Feeley had been sued by St. Luke’s, but that suit was resolved, Haines said, noting he couldn’t say more. Another attorney who represented some of the plaintiffs, sole practitioner John Vivian, had been sued by St. Luke’s and he in turn sued the hospital and Blank Rome. His suit against the hospital and law firm, filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, was stayed pending resolution of the suit against him in Lehigh County, according to the Philadelphia docket. Vivian is being represented by attorneys at The Beasley Firm.