Philadelphia Medical Malpractice Attorneys

State’s Med Mal Filings Continue to Fall, Study Shows

The Legal Intelligencer
By Amaris Elliott-Engel
April 21, 2010

There has been a 44 percent decline in the number of medical malpractice filings since the state Supreme Court and the General Assembly instituted reform measures in 2003, according to an annual court study released Tuesday.

The drop-off in medical malpractice filings began after the state Supreme Court instituted reform measures in 2003 requiring that medical malpractice cases be filed in the counties where the alleged malpractice cause of action arose and that cases be filed with a certificate of merit from a physician stating that there is a reasonable probability that a medical malpractice defendant deviated from the accepted standard of medical care.

The number of suits begun in Pennsylvania fell to 1,533 filings in 2009, down from a high of 2,904 filings in 2002, the last year before the reform measures, and down from 1,602 filings in 2008, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts’ latest statistical review of medical malpractice litigation.

The number of filings in Philadelphia fell from 1,365 in 2002 to 491 in 2009. Meanwhile, the number of filings in Montgomery County grew from 21 filings in 2002 to 102 filings in 2009. Philadelphia’s other suburban neighbors, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties, have not seen a similar increase in filings.

The likelihood of winning medical malpractice lawsuits has stayed in favor of defendants. Of the 154 medical malpractice lawsuits that went to trial in front of juries in 2009, 131, or 85 percent, ended in defense verdicts.

In 2009, only three medical malpractice cases were heard by judges sitting without juries. Of those cases, there was a defense verdict in Philadelphia and two plaintiffs’ verdicts of less than $500,000 in Clinton County and in the 17th judicial district, which consists of Snyder and Union counties.

Cherry Injury Law Justice’s trial lawyers group, said the latest round of statistics shows that the rules governing medical malpractice cases are working.

While doctors’ groups continue to push for further changes in Pennsylvania medical malpractice law, including a cap on damages or specialty medical malpractice courts, People’s rights are going to be infringed upon.”

“If you have someone badly injured, someone who is paralyzed from the neck down, a baby who is brain damaged, do you think that’s worth $250,000?” .

Trial lawyers were at the table when the certificate of merit and the venue rules were crafted, and those rules resulted in a reasonable and fair set of rules.

Chuck Moran, director of media relations for the Pennsylvania Medical Society, said that rule changes have resulted in preserving justice “to those who are truly injured. That’s a wonderful thing.”

But Moran said the state’s doctors still face high-premium malpractice insurance rates and are still worried about frivolous lawsuits. The fact that 85.1 percent of jury verdicts are in favor of medical defendants shows that the system might need more reform, Moran said.

Doctors would like to see a limit on non-economic damages, but Moran said there is not a lot of support right now in the state capital for such legislation.

Clifford E. Haines, president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, said there have been a number of reasons for the fall-off in medical malpractice litigation, including “the reluctance of lawyers to take cases they’re not very comfortable they can win.” Haines said the decline in numbers should show the General Assembly that there is no need to have a cap on non-economic damages because the amount of damages do not drive the number of lawsuits.

Roger Baumgarten, a spokesman for the Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, said in an e-mail there is a positive trend in the reductions in the number of medical liability lawsuits filings, but he said the cost of medical liability continues to deter the recruitment of new doctors to Pennsylvania. Premiums remain roughly double their 2002 levels, Baumgarten wrote.

According to the medical society’s most recent report from 2007, Pennsylvania’s average physician-liability payout is 60 percent higher than the rest of the country’s. In 2006, the national average was slightly less than $6,000, while the Pennsylvania average was $12,000.

However, physician liability premiums dropped between 2002 and 2007, the report said.

Physicians must carry $1 million in medical liability insurance coverage — $500,000 with a primary carrier and $500,000 underwritten by the state Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Fund. Moran said that an update on the report is still being prepared.

Of the 23 plaintiff verdicts statewide in 2009, 11 verdicts were $500,000 or less, no verdicts were between $500,000 and $1 million, 11 were between $1 million and $5 million, one verdict was between $5 million and $10 million and there were no verdicts over $10 million.

Philadelphia had 33 defense verdicts, three plaintiffs verdicts of $500,000 or less, six plaintiffs verdicts between $1 million and $5 million and no verdicts over $5 million.

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said in a news release that the two rule changes show that “Pennsylvania is far ahead of the nation and of individual states in this arena, and we stand as a model of reform. Most importantly, justice for our citizens is still being delivered when patients are truly injured by medical mistakes.”

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