Article by Michelle Kaminski, Esq.
The below discusses the case of DiNardo v. Kohler, 270 A.3d 1201 (Pa. Super. 2022), and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent decision to affirm that of the lower court, thereby protecting medical providers from claims sought against them due to the criminal actions of others.
Between June and July of 2017, an individual by the name of Cosmo DiNardo killed four people in Bucks County, PA. His case was tried and he confessed to having committed the murders. Cosmo DiNardo was found guilty of first-degree murder on all counts.
Subsequently, in 2019, a civil action was brought by Cosmo’s mother, Sandra DiNardo, against several defendants, including the medical facility that had treated Cosmo in the months prior to the murders, The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Specifically, Ms. DiNardo claimed that the medical defendants had provided negligent psychiatric care to Cosmo prior to the murders, beginning in 2016, and had improperly reduced the dosage of his medications. Ms. DiNardo sought indemnification for what she claimed was “gross negligence” on the part of the medical defendants, in addition to recovery for several costs associated with the defense of both the criminal and civil actions brought against Cosmo as a result of the murders (attorney’s fees, litigations costs, and the money paid to the victims’ estates). She also claimed that as to Cosmo, the medical defendants were liable for his severe emotional distress and physical pain associated with knowing that he had caused financial harm to his family, that he would spend the rest of his life in prison, and that he had murdered four people while in an “otherwise treatable psychopathic state.”
The medical defendants in this case filed preliminary objections and sought the dismissal of this action pursuant to the “no felony conviction recovery” rule, which precludes individuals convicted of felonies or worse from recovering all losses flowing from their criminal acts, in Pennsylvania. The Trial Court sustained the preliminary objection to Ms. DiNardo’s demand for indemnification on the grounds that this right “rests with a party who without active fault on his own has been compelled, by reason of some legal obligation, to pay damages occasioned by the legal negligence of another, and for which he is only secondarily liable,” where in this case, Cosmo DiNardo clearly played an active role in the injuries at issue. On the other hand, the Trial Court declined to dismiss the compensatory claim, asserting that these may have been caused, directly or indirectly, by the medical defendants, rather than as a result of the criminal convictions.
On appeal, the medical defendants argued that the Trial Court improperly failed to dismiss the compensatory claims pursuant to the Pennsylvania felony rule. As part of their review, the Superior Court took judicial notice of the fact that Cosmo DiNardo had confessed to the four murders, and had been convicted of murder in the first-degree. Ultimately, the Superior Court would reverse the lower court’s holding with respect to Ms. DiNardo’s claim for compensatory damages, and dismiss this action entirely.
In support of this holding, the Superior Court cited the “no felony conviction recovery rule,” expressed in Holt v. Navarro, 932 A.2d 915 (Pa. Super. 2007), and described as a “common law principle that a person should not be permitted to benefit by his own wrongdoing, particularly his own crimes, [and it] prevents a plaintiff from recovering losses which flowed from those criminal acts”). In short, under the rule, a party may not benefit in a civil suit that flows from their criminal convictions. The Court reasoned that an opposite approach would violate public policy. In the adverse, the amended complaint in this civil action specifically connects each claim for compensatory damages to the criminal conviction (Cosmo’s alleged severe emotional distress and physical pain of knowing that he had committed the murders, etc.). The Court additionally reasoned that the difference between “profit” and “compensation” was irrelevant given the commonality of either flowing from the criminal convictions.
The Court also discussed the case of Vattimo v. Lower Bucks Hospital, Inc., 502 Pa. 241, 465 A.2d 1231 (1983), wherein a compensatory claim under similar facts was not dismissed. In that case (which dealt with a schizophrenic patient with a known fascination with fire who set fire to this hospital room, killing his roommate), the patient was found not guilty by reason of insanity during his criminal trial, and the “no felony conviction recovery rule” could not apply given the lack of any conviction. Therefore, while indemnification was still prohibited, compensatory damages could be awarded. Here, where Cosmo DiNardo confessed to his crimes and was found guilty of first-degree murder, the same conclusion could not be reached.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court would later see this action in March of 2023 and affirm the Superior Court’s ruling on November 22, 2023. Of this holding, Justice Debra Todd states: “Allowing the recovery of damages from a mental healthcare provider for a patient’s criminal conduct could undermine trust between the patient and psychiatrist; encourage psychiatrists to refuse to treat, or avoid treating, certain patients; spur institutionalization and excessive medication out of concern for financial liability should patients be released from care and commit crimes; and would not respect the difficulty mental healthcare professionals face in predicting whether an individual poses a risk of violence.” In an article posted to The Legal Intelligencer on November 22, 2023, agreeing with the sentiment of Justice Todd, the hospital states that allowing recovery would function both to condone criminal conduct and to encourage parties to plead guilty, then later to shift the blame to third parties with “deep pockets,” like medical providers.
Additional citations: Dinardo on Behalf of Dinardo v. Kohler, 292 A.3d 1129 (Pa. 2022); https://cases.justia.com/pennsylvania/supreme-court/2023-23-eap-2022.pdf?ts=1700665680 (Opinion decided November 22, 2023)