A Pennsylvania appellate court has temporarily halted imposition of nearly $1 million in penalties against defense lawyer Nancy Raynor, who was sanctioned last year for breaching a court order barring her witnesses from testifying that a woman suing for medical malpractice had been a longtime smoker.
The Superior Court order, issued Wednesday, gave Raynor access to business accounts that had been frozen and halted garnishment of fees from insurance-industry clients. It also ordered Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Paul Panepinto to hold a hearing on new evidence that Raynor's lawyers contend shows she took steps to ensure witnesses not offer precluded testimony.
At the same time, the appellate panel denied a request that Panepinto be removed from the case.
"The important thing is that the court is allowing her access to her business accounts," said Raynor's lawyer, Jeffrey McCarron.
Panepinto has defended the sanctions, saying Raynor deliberately elicited precluded testimony as part of a trial strategy. But some legal experts questioned the magnitude of the penalty in light of conflicting testimony in the case.
The case involves the testimony of one of Raynor's witnesses in a medical-malpractice trial in 2012. The witness, Dr. John Kelly, in response to a question from Raynor, testified that a deceased woman, whose heirs sued Roxborough Memorial Hospital and physicians there, had been a smoker. The woman went to the hospital complaining of shortness of breath, and physicians failed to inform her that X-ray results showed a suspicious nodule.
She later died of lung cancer.
In advance of the medical-malpractice trial, Panepinto banned testimony about the woman's smoking at the request of plaintiffs' lawyers, who were concerned such testimony would divert attention from the hospital's responsibility to inform the woman of the X-ray results. Panepinto later declared a mistrial and ordered that Raynor pay $946,197 to the plaintiffs' lawyers and their client to compensate them for the cost of the mistrial.
During a hearing on the sanctions, both Raynor's client, Jeffrey Geller, a physician who was being sued, and an insurance company adjuster testified that Raynor had told Kelly not to testify about smoking by the woman, Rosalind Wilson. Kelly himself testified that he could not remember whether he had been told.
Matt D'Annunzio, a lawyer for Wilson's daughter, who initiated the lawsuit, did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
Raynor has said that the court order freezing her accounts and garnishing payments for her legal representation threatened to force the closure of her Malvern-based firm, which primarily defends physicians in malpractice cases.
Raynor's appellate lawyers, Maureen McBride and James Sargent Jr., of West Chester's Lamb McErlane, filed an emergency appeal Feb. 10 with Superior Court, citing new evidence from a litigation technology consultant named Joe Chapman, who said that he had heard Raynor advise Kelly that smoking testimony had been banned. He added that he heard Kelly say he "understands this." Chapman said he decided to come forward after learning about Raynor's legal predicament in The Inquirer.
The Superior Court per curiam - for the court - order said Chapman's testimony was "deemed relevant to reconsideration of the decision on sanctions."
Raynor "may access any and all accounts for basic operating funds for both business and personal purposes," the order said.
The hearing on the new evidence and the appeal must be scheduled by March 9, the order said. The order also requires Panepinto to "immediately" inform the Superior Court of his decision in the matter.