Although the cause of actions of abuse of process and wrongful use of civil proceedings may seem to be one in the same, there are significant differences between them. The common law cause of action for abuse of process is defined as the use of legal process against another “‘primarily to accomplish a purpose for which it is not designed.’” Rosen v. American Bank of Rolla, 627, 426 Pa. Super. 376, 627 A.2d 190, 192 (Pa. Super. 1993). Wrongful use of civil proceedings (or more commonly known as the “Dragonetti Act”) covers a different tort. Its provisions are:
- Elements of action. A person who takes part in the procurement, initiation or continuation of civil proceedings against another is subject to liability to the other for wrongful use of civil proceedings:
- he acts in a grossly negligent manner or without probable cause and 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; and
- the proceedings have terminated in favor of the person against whom they are brought.
42 Pa.C.S. § 8351 et. seq.
Under the Dragonetti Act, the parties liable include the lawyer, the law firm prosecuting the case, the law firm’s client, and if applicable, the owner of a corporate client. The Dragonetti Act, including its provisions that allows actions to be brought against lawyers who file suits or prolong proceedings in violation of the Act was recently found to be valid by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. See Villani v. Seibert, 639 Pa. 58, 83, 159 A.3d 478, 492 (2017).
The difference between the Dragonetti Act and abuse of process causes of action are well known in Pennsylvania jurisprudence. An action for abuse of process differs from a Dragonetti action (i.e., abuse of process is that the gist of an action for the improper use of process after it has been issued, that is, a perversion of it. Malicious use of civil process has to do with the wrongful initiation of such process.” Rosen, supra., 627 A.2d at 192. When civil proceedings are filed or prosecuted with a malicious motive and lacking probable cause, 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8351(a)(1)-(2) is violated. A successful cause of action under the Dragonetti Act has three elements: (1) the proceedings were decided in favor of the defendant; (2) the lawyer, the law firm, and the client caused those proceedings to be instituted against the defendant without probable cause; and 3) the proceedings were instituted primarily for an improper cause. See Di Loreto v. Costigan, 600 F. Supp. 2d 671 (E.D. Pa. 2009) (Discussing cases).
The Dragonetti Act provides that a plaintiff is entitled to recover for (1) the harm normally resulting from any dispossession or interference with the advantageous use of his land, chattels or other things, suffered by him during the course of the proceedings; (2) the expense, including any reasonable attorney’s fees, that he has reasonably incurred in defending himself against the proceedings; (3) any specific pecuniary loss that has resulted from the proceedings; and (4) punitive damages according to law in appropriate cases.