On Thursday, Pennsylvania’s highest court reversed its own two-decade-old rule requiring medical malpractice cases to be lodged in the county where the alleged harm occurred. This was a victory for civil plaintiffs and their attorneys, but a potentially costly change for healthcare providers.
The state Supreme Court’s decision is likely to increase the number of such litigation in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where jurors are perceived to be more sympathetic to patients and to render larger verdicts.
The justices supported a recommendation made by their own Civil Procedural Rules Committee. The majority of the committee’s report argued that medical malpractice cases should be governed by the same rules as other categories of civil litigation.
The majority of the committee wrote in its report, “There appears to be a misconception that patients injured by the negligent actions of healthcare providers enjoy a windfall verdict in more populous counties.” “Many of these patients have sustained severe injuries that will permanently diminish their quality of life, necessitating permanent medical care and assistance with activities of daily living.”
According to a report published in 2020 by the nonpartisan Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, the cost of medical professional liability insurance in the state has decreased since 2007, mirroring a national trend.
The report concluded, “The available data do not support the conclusion that changes in the availability, cost, and affordability of medical professional liability insurance are due to changes in Pennsylvania law.”
The president of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, Zachary Shamberg, referred to the change as “a dramatic step backward” for long-term care providers in the state.
“This could eventually threaten the viability of our industry as we know it,” said Shamberg.
The court’s decision could return Pennsylvania to the late 1990s, when a medical liability insurance crisis prompted legislative and judicial action, according to Curt Schroder of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform, a group representing healthcare providers and related businesses.
Schroder predicted, “We will see cases that have no business being in, say, the city of Philadelphia.” The number of jury rewards will skyrocket.
Kila Baldwin, the president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice of trial lawyers, stated that the new rule “accomplishes the goal of returning fairness to the rules and the basis of our legal system, which is treating all parties equally under the law.”
“It’s actually quite easy. Cases should be heard by twelve jurors with no ties to hospitals or surgical centers, which are frequently the largest employers in a county. Baldwin said in a statement that the new rule will level the playing field and enhance access to justice for all Pennsylvanians.
In response to what was perceived as a crisis in the state’s medical malpractice system, with high premiums for physicians and fears that it was harming medical care, the Legislature, governor, and Supreme Court adopted a number of reforms twenty years ago.
In 2002, the legislature passed and Republican Governor Mark Schweiker signed the MCARE Act, which restricted lawsuits to the county where the patient was purportedly injured.
In 2003, the state Supreme Court, which was then controlled by a Republican majority, adopted a similar rule regarding where medical malpractice cases can be lodged. The court currently has a Democratic majority of 5 to 2, and political contributions from plaintiffs’ trial attorneys tend to favor Democratic candidates, while the insurance industry supports Republicans more.
In a brief filed two years ago in a Superior Court medical malpractice case, a coalition of physicians’ associations and other medical groups argued that overturning the venue rules and shifting cases to Philadelphia and other city courts would “put the commonwealth back on a path to ruin.”
In that instance, a woman who had filed a lawsuit in Philadelphia against Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals Inc. and a number of other medical providers did not want it transported to the adjacent suburb of Delaware County. She was unsuccessful in her appeal.
Steven Burgess Davis, the attorney who filed the amicus brief in this case on behalf of medical providers, stated on Thursday that he saw no cause for the court to reverse the policy.