Keystone Freight Tries Again

/ 06.Mar, 2015

On of the more comprehensive Superior Court opinions on wrongful use of civil proceedings in recent years is Keystone Freight Corp. v. Stricker, 31 A.3d 967 (Pa. Super. 2011).  In Keystone Freight, the trial court granted summary judgment finding:

Keystone Freight did not establish that Appellees lacked probable cause, or acted with gross negligence in initiating or continuing the underlying proceeding, and that Keystone Freight did not establish Appellees acted with an improper purpose.

The Superior Court affirmed stating:

We agree.  Keystone Freight has produced not a scintilla of evidence to show that Appellees’ survival and wrongful death action was commenced primarily for a purpose other than that of securing the proper discovery, joinder of parties or adjudication of the claim in which the proceedings are based.  42 Pa.C.S. § 8351(a)(1).  Keystone has neither presented evidence of any personal animus by Appellees against Keystone Freight, nor evidence of any improper motive for the commencement of the underlying action.

This opinion apparently did not quell Keystone Freight’s ardor for the Dragonetti Act.  Keystone Freight brought another action for wrongful use of civil proceedings against the Law Offices of Joseph Gamburg (Keystone Freight Corporation v. Gamburg, 2014 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 235 (Pa. C.P. 2014)).  The underlying action involved an underage man driving under the influence of alcohol who struck a Keystone Freight vehicle which was pulling out of a gas station.  The underlying action survived a motion for summary judgment, but resulted in a defense verdict.

The jury in Keystone Freight v. Gamburg found the underlying action was pursued without probable cause, but not for an improper purpose.  Judge Younge denied plaintiff’s post-trial motions.  The action is currently on appeal, and was argued last November.  On appeal, Keystone Freight argues the jury verdict is inconsistent, and the judge did not properly charge the jury.  In support of his denial of post-trial motions Judge Younge wrote:

In point of fact, the Jury’s decision to find that the Plaintiff failed to prove that Mr. Gamburg possessed an inappropriate motive when he brought and continued the underlying case was completely rational when considered against the competent evidence presented at trial.

  Judge Younge continued to explain the basis the jury could have determined there was no improper purpose:

First and foremost, in order to reach its conclusion, the Jury was never required to reject the conclusion that Mr. Gamburg had acted in good faith when he filed or continued the underlying litigation; it simply had to find that the Plaintiff failed to prove improper motive. When examining Mr. Gamburg’s motive, the Jury was presented with a situation in which a young man, Mr. Watson, was severely injured in an automobile accident. This Court would never condone Mr. Watson behavior; however, the fact remained, competent evidence was proven that demonstrated that Mr. Jarrett created a proverbial brick wall that blocked three lanes of travel on Lincoln Highway at 2:00 a.m. in the dark when he drove his tractor-trailer into oncoming traffic as he left the Sunoco parking lot.

Keystone Freight also argued the court erred in not instructing the jury that improper purpose could be inferred from a lack of probable cause.  Judge Younge rejected that argument noting his charge came directly from the Pennsylvania Suggested Standard Jury Instructions.  We will certainly report the results when they come.

Josh J.T. Byrne, Esquire