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Study: fewer people in PA pursuing compensation for malpractice injuries

Fewer Pennsylvanians are pursuing malpractice lawsuits, even though statistics indicate that medical mistakes and negligence remain a sizable problem.

When people in Easton entrust their well-being to the advice or performance of medical professionals, they expect expert and attentive care. When medical professionals provide substandard care instead, patients who sustain needless injuries can seek justice through a medical malpractice lawsuit. Unfortunately, statistics show that a decreasing number of Pennsylvanians are exercising this right, even though malpractice remains a significant problem.

Troubling trends in healthcare

The average number of Pennsylvania malpractice filings has fallen by more than 30 percent since the early 2000s, according to Scranton's Times-Tribune. It seems logical that this drop reflects better quality of care, but the available data does not support this explanation. In fact, according to Scientific American, research-based estimates of the national scale of malpractice have only increased in recent years:

  • In 1999, the Institute of Medicine reported that medical mistakes result in as many as 98,000 preventable deaths per year.
  • In 2010, the Inspector General Health and Human Services Office attributed the deaths of 180,000 Medicare patients to substandard care.
  • In 2013, a study published in the Journal of Patient Safety estimated that between 210,000 and 440,000 patients die every year from malpractice.

Statistics also suggest that the number of malpractice injuries or deaths has risen in Pennsylvania, even as the number of claims has decreased. According to the Times-Tribune, one patient advocacy group found that "serious patient safety" events, or care that causes death or unexpected injuries, increased more than 10 percent from 2005 to 2013. More than 7,000 of these events occurred in 2013 alone.

These figures make it difficult to believe that changes in healthcare are responsible for the reduced number of malpractice filings. Instead, it appears that legal changes made more than a decade ago may be driving the decrease.

Stricter malpractice laws

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reformed two aspects of state malpractice law in 2002, according to the Times-Tribune. Now, victims of malpractice can only file lawsuits in the county in which the malpractice occurred, which could be burdensome for some victims. Victims must also obtain a certificate of merit, which establishes the validity of the malpractice claim, prior to filing a lawsuit.

These changes were designed to curb rising healthcare and liability costs, but unfortunately, they may be discouraging more victims from pursuing valid claims. Still, people who have been harmed by medical mistakes or negligence should strongly consider meeting with a personal injury attorney, rather than assuming that seeking justice will be too difficult.

Statistics show that malpractice claims that do go to court have a reasonable chance of success. As an example, documents from Pennsylvania's Unified Judicial System website show that more than half of non-jury malpractice verdicts reached in 2013 were in favor of the plaintiff. Malpractice victims may also benefit from the fact that Pennsylvania failed to pass a cap on non-economic damages in 2002.

Non-economic damages address indirect expenses of an injury, such as future wage losses, as well as effects that cannot be easily measured, such as pain and suffering. Non-economic damages may constitute a substantial portion of total damages, so when these damages are capped, it may not be worthwhile for victims to pursue compensation. Pennsylvanians benefit from laws that allow every malpractice victim to seek appropriate compensation.

Even if malpractice claim filings have decreased, people who have been affected by malpractice in Pennsylvania should not make assumptions about their legal options; instead, victims should consider meeting with an attorney for advice on the best way to pursue justice.

Keywords: medical malpractice, negligence, surgical error