Before getting elected to Pennsylvania’s General Assembly five years ago, Bryan Cutler worked in healthcare.
Through his various positions, from X-ray technician to support services manager at Lancaster General Hospital, Cutler saw firsthand how strongly the legal and medical fields were tied.
“I was acutely aware of the medical malpractice crisis,” Cutler, a Republican who represents the 100th Legislative District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, said during an interview this week with the Pennsylvania Record.
Cutler, 36, put himself through law school during his time working in the medical profession. It was here that he focused especially on healthcare law, and in particular, medical malpractice.
So perhaps it’s fitting that Cutler is the man behind the bill that seeks to put an end to so-called “venue shopping” in the commonwealth.
After all, the state legislature had already tackled medical malpractice venue shopping, and things seemed to have worked out in the favor of tort reform proponents such as Cutler.
in 2002, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed legislation which limited venue in medical malpractice cases to the counties in which the causes of action arose, which is typically where the medical procedures took place.
The state Supreme Court followed suit, eventually amending its own judicial venue rules, limiting civil medical malpractice filings to the jurisdiction where the alleged incidents occurred.
“It certainly seems to have worked in that arena,” Cutler said. “The natural extension then became, OK, what about other civil filings.”
Cutler was the prime sponsor of House Bill 1552, which was originally sent to the judiciary committee back in the springtime.
As originally crafted, the bill would have forced all personal injury lawsuits to be filed in the county where the respective cause of action first arose.
In other words, if a plaintiff allegedly became injured at a business in Lancaster County, he or she would have to file in that county’s court of common pleas.
The legislation was, in part, aimed at cutting down on the number of frivolous cases filed in the state’s most populous county, and a favorite among trial lawyers – Philadelphia.
Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas is often viewed as a goldmine to plaintiff’s attorneys, at least that’s what a report released in October by George Mason University School of Law economics professor Joshua D. Wright says.
The empirical study concludes that Philly’s civil court system is attractive to plaintiffs from outside of the city, often at the expense of local consumers and businesses.
This leads to “disproportionate litigation and verdicts relative to other courts,” the study claims.
In part, the study found that Philadelphia plaintiffs are less likely to settle than plaintiffs in other state jurisdictions; Philadelphia plaintiffs are disproportionately likely to prefer jury trials; and Philadelphia plaintiffs are more likely to get sympathetic juries.
Under Cutler’s original proposal, personal injury claims would have to be filed in the counties in which the alleged incidents occurred.
But Cutler recently decided to revise the bill to allow for filings to occur in the counties in which the respective causes of action arose, the counties in which the plaintiffs reside or the counties in which the defendants are headquartered.
Oftentimes, a business might be headquartered in one county, but still conduct operations in another.
Cutler said an example would be the business owner he spoke to who is based in Montgomery County, and learned of a slip-and-fall incident taking place on his commercial property in Montco, but then finding out that a lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia because the company also conducts business out of the City of Brotherly Love.
Cutler said one of his goals with the legislation was to make it less costly and time-consuming for business owners to answer to litigation that might take them far from home.
“They oftentimes find themselves dragged into these tangential jurisdictions,” Cutler said.
Cutler said his own research has shown that there appears to be a disparity in the number of personal injury cases filed in Philly and those filed in the rest of the state.
Since the medical malpractice rule went into affect, Cutler said those types of filings have evened out throughout the commonwealth, meaning Philadelphia med mal cases roughly correlate to those filed throughout the rest of the commonwealth.
Other personal injury suits, however, remain more Philly-centric.
“While we have fixed the medical malpractice piece of the [puzzle], the general personal injury [claims] are a little higher, unfortunately,” Cutler said.
The one problem Cutler has run into is the question over his bill’s constitutionality. Some claim his proposal wouldn’t fly, since the state constitution specifies that only the courts can make rules with regard to venue in civil cases.
Cutler, however, says case law shows otherwise. While the kinks are still being worked out, he said he believes the legislature might have some leeway in this respect.
“I would argue that there’s precedence for us to alter the venue and or jurisdiction for other kinds of cases,” he said. “It’s not as clear cut as some on both sides wish it were.”
Cutler did concede to some trial lawyers’ concerns about venue restrictions, which is why he expanded his bill to include the home counties of both the plaintiffs and defendants as being fair game for filing, in addition to where the cause of action arose.
As for whether or not his fellow lawmakers are on board with the venue shopping bill – it has since been renamed H.B. 1976 – Cutler said while he has received informal support, there’s no telling what will be the bill’s fate.
“I don’t know, and I probably won’t know, until the votes go up,” he said.
The bill was sent back to committee after the proposed revisions were made earlier this month. Cutler said a new committee vote is scheduled for Dec. 5.