Insurance defense lawyer Nancy Raynor has filed a lawsuit against plaintiffs’ attorneys who sought and won a contempt order against her that resulted in a $1 million sanction and a temporary freeze on her bank accounts.
The complaint, filed in Common Pleas Court, alleges that lawyers Matthew D’Annunzio and Joseph Messa Jr. abused the civil-justice system by seeking the sanction and then moving to seize Raynor's assets once Superior Court Judge Paul Panepinto imposed the penalty.
“In the first instance, she suffered an immediate economic loss, but more importantly her reputation in the legal community and among potential clients was severely damaged,” said Raynor’s lawyer, Clifford Haines. “This whole thing could and should have been avoided.”
Lawyers for Messa and D’Annunzio said they were confident that their clients would prevail. “I think the allegations are unfounded,” said Messa’s lawyer, Abraham Reich, of Center City’s Fox Rothschild. “This was a contested motion before a trial judge who entered a ruling based on the evidence that was presented to him. We expect that when the dust settles, we will be vindicated.”
The case has drawn attention in Philadelphia and beyond because of the amount of money involved. Lawyers said they had never before seen a penalty of that size in a case in which one side accused the other of failing to follow a judge’s instructions. A Superior Court panel reversed the penalty last year.
Raynor’s complaint was filed under the Pennsylvania Dragonetti Act, which gives prevailing parties in civil litigation the right to seek damages against opposing lawyers who are alleged to have used the judicial system to harass their opponents with baseless complaints.
The law permits prevailing plaintiffs to seek damages for harm to reputation and emotional distress as well as punitive damages.
Panepinto, an unsuccessful candidate for the state Supreme Court in 2015, imposed the sanction on Raynor in the trial of a medical-malpractice case. Plaintiffs alleged that physicians at Roxborough Memorial Hospital had failed to properly diagnose a suspicious nodule in the left lung of patient Rosalind Wilson, who had gone to the emergency room complaining of chest pains.
Wilson later died of lung cancer, and at the trial, lawyers for her estate asked the court to ban testimony about her lifelong smoking habit. A defense witness nonetheless mentioned Wilson’s smoking during testimony, creating an uproar among the plaintiff’s lawyers. Raynor represented a doctor being sued by Wilson’s estate.
Raynor later came forward with three witnesses who said they had heard her advise the witness before the start of the trial that testimony about the smoking was off limits. Messa and D’Annunzio had argued that Raynor’s testimony had shifted over time, and that her claims lacked credibility.
Last year, a Superior Court panel overturned the sanction, saying that Panepinto’s instructions were vague and that the witnesses who came forward to say they heard Raynor advise the witness not to mention smoking were credible.