Medical malpractice suits declined in PA

Chief justice Ron Castille in 2007. (Jessica Griffin / Staff Photographer)

The number of new medical malpractice lawsuits in Pennsylvania declined last year to 1,533 in 2009 from 1,602 cases initiated in 2008, according to the latest data from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

Overall, the number of malpractice suits filed in the Commonwealth declined 47 percent from a peak of 2,904 in 2002. In Philadelphia, the county with the largest number of malpractice suits, the decline was even more dramatic from a peak of 1,365 in 2002 to 491 least year, a 64 percent drop.

Doctors and hospitals who took cases to trial in 2009 did well across the state and in Philadelphia where defendants won 85.1 percent and 78.6 percent of cases respectively. Of the 154 cases that resulted in jury verdicts last year, one case - from Allegheny County - won an award of between $5 million and $10 million. Another 11 cases – including six from Philadelphia - won jury awards of $1 million to $5 million, according to the data collected by the state courts.

“The sustained decline in the number of medical malpractice actions filed since the Supreme Court took significant steps to address procedural aspects of the state court system is an encouraging sign,” said Ronald D. Castille, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania in a statement. “In the recent health care debate nationally, there is an insistent call for reform of the handling of medical malpractice cases within the judicial system. … Pennsylvania is far ahead of the nation and individual states in this arena.”

The Courts did not release any data on settlements of malpractice suits, such the case of Lathenia Petty whose family settled with her primary care doctor, radiologist, and Pottstown Memorial Hospital last week for an undisclosed amount of money. Nor are cases that are dismissed or otherwise disposed of without a payment to the plaintiffs accounted for in the Courts data.

In 2003, the state Supreme Court required that medical malpractice lawsuits be fined in the county where the alleged injury occurred to prevent so-called venue shopping to counties considered more plaintiffs friendly. The Court also required that plaintiffs obtain a so-called certificate of merit from a doctor, saying that negligence occurred.

In 2002, the state legislature passed Act 13, a measure that was aimed at limiting the number of medical malpractice suits and reducing medical errors.

"The fact is that they have made some good changes and, as the data shows, the number of claims being filed is down," said Charles Moran, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Medical Society that represents doctors in the state. "That is a good sign. Something must be working."

"The data continue the positive trend of reductions in the number of medical liability lawsuit filings statewide as the result of the reforms adopted in 2002," said Roger Baumgarten, a spokesman for the Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania (HAP). "Medical liability costs continue to be a deterrent to recruiting new physicians to PA and more needs to be done to make PA more "physician-friendly" so that there is adequate access to health care in the commonwealth."