The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed a 2002 ruling Thursday, allowing medical malpractice claimants to bring their case to court in counties other than where the injury occurred.
The amendment becomes effective Jan 1, 2023.
The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania (HAP) said it was disappointed by the court’s action, saying it took away legal reforms that have protected Pennsylvanians’ access to health care for nearly two decades.
And the Pennsylvania Osteopathic Medical Association said, “the court seems to have forgotten the lessons learned in the early 2000s when premiums for coverage represented a substantial investment by physicians required by law in order to practice their profession.”
Legal reforms enacted during 2002 required that claims be considered in the county where the alleged medical liability occurred. Thursday’s rule change reverts back to the prior rule with the inclusion of a provision requiring the court to review the decision after two years.
Before the 2002 change, HAP President and CEO Andy Carter said regular ‘venue shopping’ resulted in distorted verdicts. By 2002, medical liability jury verdicts in Philadelphia were more than twice the national average and nearly a quarter were for $1 million or more. In 2001, Philadelphia had more medical liability trials than any other county in the nation and from 1999–2001, Philadelphia had 87 medical liability cases of $1 million or more, only slightly fewer than the entire state of California, Carter said.
The 2002 reforms changed this. During 2020, only 24% of the medical malpractice filings statewide were in Philadelphia, a 71% drop from when venue shopping ended, Carter said.
A recently released independent actuarial report commissioned by Senate Judiciary Chair Lisa Baker, R- Luzerne, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties, found a rule reversal would lead to a substantial increase in premiums, Schroder said. In her report she noted Lancaster County, for example, could expect upwards of a 73% premium increase for hospitals and an 82% liability premium increase for physicians.
The court, in its findings, said mandating a venue does not necessarily yield a smaller verdict. There appears to be a misconception that patients harmed by the negligent actions of health care providers somehow enjoy a windfall verdict in more populous counties, the court wrote.
It goes on to say, “The stark reality is that patients and their family members would forgo all to avoid the injury caused by medical malpractice in the first place. A verdict can never make them whole.”
Efforts to reach medical malpractice attorneys went unanswered.
“Yesterday’s decision by the state Supreme Court to revert to the conditions that created a crisis will only harm health care providers and further diminish our state’s competitiveness, without serving the interests of patients,” said Luke Berstein, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce. “The reforms previously enacted worked for Pennsylvanians, and this action by the court sets us backwards.”
“If an incident took place in Cumberland or Westmoreland County, and there are no conflicts for the case to be heard there, why should it be moved to Philadelphia County or vice versa?” he asked. “We strongly urge the legislature and Wolf Administration to enact legislation establishing fair rules for venue in these types of civil cases.”
Current legislation, House Bill 2660, sponsored by Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin County, would begin the process of amending the state constitution to allow the General Assembly to establish the venue of civil lawsuits and prevent venue shopping. It is currently in the rules committee.
“Two decades ago, all three branches of Pennsylvania government worked together to address a medical liability crisis that threatened Pennsylvania health care,” said Carter. “Today’s rule change rejects their effective solution and again jeopardizes care.” he said Thursday.
“In the years since the rule was implemented, the rule has done exactly what it was designed to do,” Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform Executive Director Curt Schroder said. “The Commonwealth’s medical liability environment was right sized as the number of medical liability cases filed in Philadelphia plummeted and medical liability premiums stabilized. Unfortunately, the success of the rule ultimately led to its demise – and now the Commonwealth risks history repeating itself.“
Pennsylvanians will pay the ultimate price, Schroder said. The state already suffers from the second highest medical malpractice payouts in the nation. Now that the Supreme Court has paved the way for plaintiffs’ attorneys to steer cases to high verdict courts, that number is expected to go up, he said.
“Plaintiffs’ lawyers would have you believe the only place they can obtain justice is in Philadelphia and other locales known for jackpot verdicts,” Schroder said. “That is an insult to caring, conscientious jurors across the state who devote great time and consideration to civil cases. What the plaintiffs’ bar does not admit is that sometimes a defense verdict is justice.”