Service of a Complaint in the Eyes of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court

One of the most basic elements to a successful restaurant is good customer service. Similarly, good service, of a complaint, is a basic element of effectively beginning a lawsuit. Recently, in Ferraro v. Patterson-Erie Corp., No. 1 WAP 2023, — A.3d —-, 2024 WL 1776128 (Pa. Apr. 25, 2024), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinforced and clarified the standard for service of process under the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure in the context of the good faith efforts to serve a complaint.

On August 26, 2018, a Burger King customer allegedly slipped and fell in a Burger King restaurant, allegedly sustaining injuries in the fall. On March 4, 2020, within the two (2) year statute of limitations, the customer filed a complaint against Patterson-Erie Corporation d/b/a Burger King and Burger King Corporation (“Burger King”). However, the complaint was not effectively and properly served by the Sherriff until November 3, 2020, after the complaint lapsed.  There is no evidence of any attempts to effectuate service at any time via the Sheriff of Butler County between March 4, 2020, and November 3, 2020, more than two (2) months after the statute of limitations expired.

Burger King filed an answer to the complaint. In its new matter, it asserted the defense that the action was barred by the statute of limitations.  After the pleadings closed, Burger King filed a dispositive motion for judgment on the pleadings. The trial court denied Bruger King’s motion and, upon an interlocutory appeal, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Recall that, by March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was upon us. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania entered a comprehensive order on March 18, 2020, guiding court procedures in light of the-then COVID-19 closures of the courts and society in general. However, and critically, there is evidence that the Sheriff of Butler County was serving original process, and service of original process on Burger King in other matters, from March 2020 to at least May 2020.

In May 2020, after apparent unsuccessful service of Burger King here, the plaintiff hired a private process server who hand-delivered a copy of the original complaint to Burger King. Plaintiff claimed this was sufficient notice as she “made regular, extraordinary, and immediate attempts to serve the subject complaint.” See McCreesh v. City of Philadelphia, 585 Pa. 211, 888 A.2d 664 (2005). However, Burger King argued that she only made a good faith effort at service once, in March 2020, and then not again until November 2020.

The trial court held that, while service by hand-delivery by a process server was not proper under the Pennsylvania Civil Rules of Procedure and proper service was not effectuated until after the statute of limitations expired, nevertheless it was proper to deny Burger King’s motion because the plaintiff had properly forwarded the complaint to be served by the Butler County Sheriff and the hand-delivery of the suit was actual notice to Burger King of the underlying facts and commencement of the suit. The trial court determined that the plaintiff had “engaged in a good faith effort to properly serve [Burger King] . . . .” and that Burger King failed to demonstrate any prejudice from the lack of proper service.

On appeal from the Superior Court’s affirmation of the trial court’s decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court explains that, while the Commonwealth has generally rejected strict compliance with the timeframes established by the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff’s burden, when service is challenged, is to demonstrate a good faith effort to diligently and timely serve process within the prescribed time frame, and where there is “actual notice [but] without a good faith attempt at diligent and proper service, [such] is insufficient to meet plaintiff’s burden.” Gussom v. Teagle, 665 Pa. 189, 247 A.3d 1046 (Pa. 2021); Lamp v. Heyman, 469 Pa. 465, 366 A.2d 882 (1976). Burger King raised a challenge to the service of the complaint, and thus shifted the burden to plaintiff to produce evidence of her good faith effort to serve process.

The Court held that the plaintiff’s one attempt at service through the Sheriff, in March 2020, prior to the expiration of the statue of limitations was insufficient to be a good faith effort to serve process. In fact, the Court recognizes that the pandemic and its effect on the Sheriff’s office’s ability to serve process was insufficient evidence as dysfunction of the Sheriff’s office would have been sufficient reason to move for alternative service. However, the plaintiff made no efforts through the courts to move for alternative service, apart from the hired process rocess server. The Court further clarified that any notice was not a substitute for proper service of process. Deviation from the rules requires a good faith effort to comply with those rules, which did not happen here. 

The Supreme Court held that the plaintiff “failed to meet her burden of demonstrating that she made a good faith effort in diligently and timely serving process on Burger King and thus, Burger King’s informal receipt of actual notice is irrelevant.”  Ferraro v. Patterson-Erie Corp., — A.3d —-, 2024 WL 1776128, at *18. Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the Superior Court.

The decision can be found here.

For additional questions, please contact Conrad James Benedetto, Esq. and/or Lauren Wenger, Esq.

This article was prepared by McCormick & Priore, P.C. to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is in no way intended to provide legal advice or to create an attorney-client relationship. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of McCormick & Priore, P.C.