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Medical Malpracticel Rule Worth Look

January 30, 2019

There is no doubt that a 2002-2003 package of revisions to laws and rules covering medical malpractice litigation reduced the number of lawsuits filed against hospitals and practitioners in Pennsylvania.

During the three years leading up to the change, an average of 2,733 medical malpractice cases per year were filed in Pennsylvania, including 1,204 per year in Philadelphia. In 2003, after the change, the statewide total fell to 1,712, and the number filed in Philadelphia fell to 577. In 2017, there were 106 malpractice verdicts statewide, the fewest in more than a decade.

Among the reforms, two are most important.

One, meant to reduce the number of “friviolous” claims filed in pursuit of nuisance settlements, is a requirement for a plaintiff claiming medical malpractice to obtain a “certificate of merit” from a court-certified medical expert in the appropriate field.

The other, meant to preclude “venue shopping” for jurisdictions with historically high jury verdicts, is a requirement that a plaintiff file suit in the county where the alleged injury occurred.

Proponents of those changes argued that the high cost of medical malpractice insurance forced some doctors in high-risk specialties to leave the state, and that the cost of medical malpractice insurance, settlements and awards was a major driver of overall health care costs.

Since the 2002-2003 changes, medical malpractice insurance premiums have fallen in accordance with the reduced risk of litigation. That has not reduced the overall cost of health care, however, which continued to climb after the changes. In 2013, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine published a study finding that medical malpractice costs are not a major driver of health care cost inflation.

In 2016, other researchers at Johns Hopkins found that more than 250,000 people die from medical errors each year, making those errors the third leading cause of death.

Now, the state Supreme Court Civil Procedure Rules Committee, comprising plaintiffs’ and defense lawyers and judges, has proposed revising the rule allowing a malpractice suit to be filed only in the county of the alleged injury. It proposes changing it to allow the suit to be filed in any county where the defendant hospital or practitioner does business. That standard applies to all other civil litigation.

The proposal has sent tremors through the medical community, even though the rule requiring precertification — applying to the merits of the case rather than location — would remain in place.

Given the Johns Hopkins findings on medical errors, it’s worth examining whether the 2002-2003 rules changes have resulted in injured Pennsylvanians not being fairly compensated.

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