Medical malpractice lawsuits have dropped in state
Statewide and in most of Northeast Pennsylvania, attorneys filed significantly fewer medical malpractice lawsuits in the past nine years. In 2003, a rule change required attorneys to obtain a certificate of merit showing that medical procedures in a case didn't meet accepted standards before they could file their case.
Also since 2003, attorneys can only file medical malpractice lawsuits in the county where the alleged incident took place, which limits the practice known as venue shopping.
Each year, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts releases statewide data related to medical malpractice lawsuits. To compare years before and after the rule changes, the AOPC used the average of the three years prior to the rule changes - 2000 through 2002 - as a base.
The AOPC's most recent report, released late last week, reported that 1,528 medical liability lawsuits were filed in 2011, about 44.1 percent fewer than the average filed during the base years.
"What we're seeing is essentially a leveling off in what had been a growing decline in numbers," Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Ronald D. Castille said in a news release. "Although the numbers are likely to show slight changes in the years ahead, the pattern suggests a solid footing for the systematic tracking and rule changes initiated a decade ago by the Supreme Court to address concern over medical malpractice litigation."
In Lackawanna County, there were 36 medical malpractice lawsuits filed in 2011, a 44.6 percent drop compared to the base years. In 2010, there were 37 medical malpractice cases filed in Lackawanna County, the highest number since 2002, according to AOPC records.
But in Luzerne County, the 48 medical malpractice lawsuits filed in 2011 representing a 41.2 percent jump compared to the base years. In 2002, there were 28 medical malpractice cases filed in Luzerne County Court. In 2010, there were 37 cases filed.
Just how the fluctuations in the number of medical malpractice lawsuits filed have affected hospitals in those counties is unclear. Representatives for hospitals in Northeast Pennsylvania declined to comment for this story.
Rule changes that led to the drop in related lawsuits filed are part of tort reform - efforts to limit monetary payments awarded to plaintiffs for an injury caused by an individual or business.
In Pennsylvania and across the nation, medical associations and attorneys have long debated whether limits should be placed on the public's ability to sue doctors, hospitals and others for medical malpractice.
Medical groups say the litigious environment in Pennsylvania has created a scenario where fewer physicians want to practice medicine because there is a higher risk of juries awarding multi-million dollar medical malpractice verdicts against them.
AOPC data shows that, statewide, more than 70 percent of the 117 medical malpractice verdicts in 2011 were in favor of the defendants, usually medical professionals or hospitals. For the cases with rulings for the plaintiffs, only four were for more than $10 million and nine verdicts led to verdicts between $1 million to $10 million.
Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania spokesman Roger Baumgarten said further reforms are needed in the state to help lower insurance premiums paid by hospitals.
"To the average Pennsylvania resident, ongoing high costs of liability coverage result in problems of physician recruitment and retention, particularly in high risk areas of the state," Mr. Baumgarten wrote in an e-mail, "the end result being reduced patient access to care via longer wait times, reduced availability of services or hospital closures."
High liability insurance costs also lead to more "defensive" medicine, like ordering more tests than what may be necessary, which raises overall health care costs, Mr. Baumgarten said.
The state hospital association that Mr. Baumgarten represents advocates for the state to take extra steps in tort reform that include establishing a limit on pain and suffering that juries can award.
Plaintiff's attorneys take a different view of medical malpractice lawsuits. Many say tort reform limits accountability for hospitals and physicians and shrinks the public's ability to receive appropriate compensation for injuries and damages. Attorneys also blame the insurance industry for charging doctors and hospitals high premiums, even as medical malpractice lawsuits have dropped in the state.
David Fallk, a plaintiff's attorney based in Scranton, said tort reform doesn't make medical care safer for patients. He added that focusing on improving patient safety would eliminate many of the problems discussed related to tort reform.
"If people aren't hurt or injured, claims go away," Mr. Fallk said. "Some hospitals have improved but not nearly enough."
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