Pa. courts won't turn over letter that sparked medical malpractice reform debate

By Nicholas Malfitano | Mar 26, 2019


Supreme Court of Pennsylvania  

HARRISBURG – Where it had first been seen as a surprise that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was considering reversing course on where medical malpractice lawsuits can be filed, it was recently revealed just where the inspiration to reconsider the policy came from.

The impetus behind the state Supreme Court’s decision to re-examine the issue originated from a letter written to the Court by a member of the public. Justice Max Baer addressed the issue to a group of state senators at a budget hearing in Harrisburg, on Feb. 26.

“Somebody wrote a letter to the Court, and the Chief Justice sent it to the [Civil Procedural Rules] Committee and said, ‘See what you think.’ And that letter was suggesting that after 16 years, the med-mal crisis had abated and we should go back to the venue rule that we had for the first 275 years of the commonwealth,” Baer said.

The author’s name is not publicly known, nor was it revealed by the Court.

Efforts undertaken by the Pennsylvania Record to obtain a copy of the letter and related correspondence through the state Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts were unsuccessful.

“The documents [requested] are part of a deliberative process and as such, are not public records,” said Stacey Witalec, Communications Director for the AOPC.

Court Awaits Venue Guidelines Study, As Statistics Show Litigation Decrease 

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 state 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.

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 state 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.

Business and legal reform groups warn that a health care crisis in the state could return if pre-2002 venue guidelines are implemented by the Supreme Court. They say those former venue rules were to blame for high malpractice insurance costs that caused fewer health care options for patients. Philadelphia is one of those areas and still draws out-of-state plaintiffs seeking one of its trademark multimillion-dollar verdicts.

Statistics provided by the AOPC show an overall decrease in medical malpractice claims filed statewide after the MCARE Act’s passage, in all but 11 of Pennsylvania’s counties.

For example, in Allegheny County, there were an average of 396 such cases filed between 2000 and 2002. Fifteen years after the MCARE Act was passed and through a steady decline, that number went down to 224 cases in 2017 - a drop of 43 percent.

In Philadelphia County, there was an average of 1,204 such cases filed between 2000 and 2002. By 2017, that number had decreased by nearly 800, down to 406 cases - representing a 66 percent drop.

The 11 counties where filings increased were Bedford, Bucks, Crawford, Greene, Indiana, Lancaster, Lawrence, Luzerne, Montgomery, Washington and Wayne. In each of those cases, though the percentage increase was high, it did not necessarily lead to a large number of filings, with the lone exception being Montgomery County. There, it went from 22 cases on average over 2000-2002, to 107 in 2017. This represented an increase of 386 percent.

Statewide overall, Pennsylvania went from seeing an average of 2,733 medical malpractice filings from 2000 to 2002, to having that number decrease 47 percent to 1,449 in 2017.

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nick.malfitano@therecordinc.com

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