Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
PHILADELPHIA – Though any action on a Supreme Court of Pennsylvania committee proposal to change venue guidelines governing medical malpractice litigation statewide has been delayed until a legislative group completes a study on the matter, several business organizations submitted comments on the proposal before its tabling.
The venue guidelines in question were brought into law subsequent to 2002’s Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error (MCARE) Act and after a recommendation from the Interbranch Commission on Venue, which then ensured plaintiffs were only permitted to sue in the venue where their alleged injury took place – a standard that currently remains in place.
In December, the Supreme Court’s Civil Procedural Rules Committee proposed changes that would permit plaintiffs to sue in any venue where a medical defendant conducts business, reminiscent of the way such lawsuits were allowed prior to the MCARE Act’s passage.
Comments to the committee on the proposal were due by Feb. 22.
The Pennsylvania Record recently reported that trial lawyers given the power by the state Supreme Court to overturn state law are connected to law firms that would benefit from a proposed change – and whose attorneys poured more than a half-million dollars into getting a Democrat majority on the court.
A look at the makeup of the committee shows five lawyers, including its chair, who work at firms that file medical malpractice cases in Pennsylvania.
And research shows that lawyers at these firms gave heavily to a PAC that spent millions of dollars in the record-setting 2015 Supreme Court election in support of the three Democrat victors who gave the court a 5-2 majority.
Three of these lawyers have been appointed since the Democrat majority took over with the elections of Kevin Dougherty, Christine Donohue and David Wecht. Since 2016, half of the committee’s openings have been filled with plaintiffs’ lawyers.
However, after the passage of a measure in the state Senate calling for a committee report on the effects of changing the current venue guidelines, the Supreme Court decided to suspend any action until that report is issued.
“I wanted to advise that a majority of the Court has determined to await the report of the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, as envisioned by Senate Resolution 20, before proceeding to consider any amendatory provisions to the current venue provisions regarding medical malpractice actions,” Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Chief Justice Thomas Saylor said in a Feb. 14 letter.
The letter was addressed to House of Representatives Speaker Michael Turzai and Majority Leader Bryan Cutler.
Though official action has been delayed for the time being, the proposal left a variety of contrasting opinions in its wake, between groups who represent business and healthcare interests in Pennsylvania and those representing plaintiff attorneys.
“The decision by the Supreme Court is a welcome development. A change of this magnitude should not be made without due diligence. Senate Resolution 20, introduced by Senator Lisa Baker, was an attempt to steer consideration of any change in medical malpractice venue in a thoughtful direction," Curt Schroder, executive director of Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform.
"(PCCJR) thanks the Senate and House Leadership for hearing and acting on our concerns. Likewise, we appreciate that a majority of the Supreme Court has decided to take a studied look at this issue before making a decision."
The PA Chamber of Business and Industry labeled the proposal as “not in the public interest.”
“The PA Chamber questions the process by which the Committee is proposing the change. The medical malpractice rule change in 2002 was the product of input from the legislature, a private commission, many stakeholders and the Court itself. The justification in the notice for Committee’s current proposal – a return to the venue rules that contributed to a healthcare access crisis – is a few short sentences with little rationale,” its President and CEO Gene Barr said.
“One stated reason for the change is the disparate treatment of a certain class of plaintiffs. The PA Chamber respectfully submits to align the current medical malpractice venue rule with ALL civil complaints. This will prevent forum shopping and give all parties more predictability and certainty in the filing of lawsuits.”
The Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania’s leadership concurred.
“Pennsylvania physicians and hospitals – and most importantly, health care consumers – would be adversely affected by such a rule. By allowing venue in counties with little relation to the underlying cause of action, claimants could shop for verdict-friendly venues in which to file their suits," Andy Carter, its President and CEO, said.
"This would again lead to higher premiums for medical liability insurance, make Pennsylvania less attractive to physicians considering practicing in the state, increase medical costs, and adversely impact access to care for consumers,”
Additionally, a coalition of 23 medical organizations in Pennsylvania, including the Health Federation of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society, Pennsylvania Medical Society and Pennsylvania State Nurses Association, spoke out against the proposal and signed on to an identically worded comment letter as that issued by HAP.
Cliff Rieders of Rieders Travis Humphrey Waters & Dohrmann in Williamsport and a member of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice – whose mission is to “promote a fair and effective justice system” in the state – mentioned that both he and the PAJ submitted comments on the issue, and added that he represented a “well-respected” bank who “believes legitimate claims actually reduce our health care costs.”
An email from the Pennsylvania Record to Josh Geist, PAJ’s President, went unanswered, as did an inquiry to the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association to see if it submitted comments.
Another effort to obtain the PAJ comments from the Supreme Court committee went unanswered.
Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, though attempts to reach the group for comment through its Executive Director Patricia Patterson were unsuccessful.
Tom Rogers, Senior Managing Editor for the Philadelphia Bar Association, said that organization had not submitted comments on the venue guidelines proposal.
From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at firstname.lastname@example.org