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Medical Malpractice “Crisis” Back in the News

In January 2019, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Civil Procedure Rules Committee proposed a rule change to allow medical malpractice plaintiffs to file suit in any county where the defendant regularly did business.  This proposed change would do away with the present rule requiring injured patients to file their claims only in the county where the alleged negligence occurred.

The current rule has been in effect since the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Errors (MCARE) Act was adopted as law in Pennsylvania in 2002, with accompanying Rules of Civil Procedure.  The MCARE Act was a response to a perceived medical malpractice “crisis,” occurring due to higher malpractice insurance premiums for medical care providers and possible lack of access to medical care in Pennsylvania.

Prior to 2002, when patients were injured by a provider’s negligence, they could sue anywhere that provider did business.  With consolidations of hospitals and medical practices beginning to occur with regularity, this meant, for example, that if medical negligence occurred in Montgomery County at a satellite facility of a large Philadelphia hospital, the injured patient could sue in Philadelphia County.  Why was that important?  Philadelphia jurors are generally viewed as overly generous in their verdicts for plaintiffs; this was true in 2002 and it remains so even now.  So far this year, Philadelphia County has already seen several huge Plaintiff’s verdicts: one for $41 million and another for $12.9 million.  Such verdicts are rare in more conservative counties outside of Philadelphia.

Accordingly, it was believed back in 2002 that medical malpractice verdicts in general would be reduced if claims were limited to the county where the negligence really occurred.  The MCARE Act venue rule change was enacted, and it had the desired effect.  According to state statistics, verdicts in favor of patients dropped dramatically over the next 15 years, resulting in “relief” from the alleged insurance crisis.  During the post-2002 era, however, the frequency of patient safety issues has also grown by leaps and bounds.  Thus, the question of whether the MCARE Act and civil rule changes on venue for medical malpractice cases are still necessary is now on the table.

The public comment period on the proposed rule change was to expire on February 22, 2019.  Prior to that date, however, the State Supreme Court halted the rulemaking process to allow the Pennsylvania State Senate to complete a study on the impact of the medical malpractice venue rules.  Stay tuned for further developments on this front as they occur.

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