HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s highest court on Thursday reversed its own two-decade-old rule that required medical malpractice cases to be filed in the county where the alleged harm occurred, a win for civil plaintiffs and the lawyers who represent them but a potentially costly change for health care providers.
The decision by the state Supreme Court is likely to mean the number of such lawsuits will increase in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where jurors are considered to be more sympathetic to patients and more likely to produce larger verdicts.
The justices sided with a recommendation from their own Civil Procedural Rules Committee. In a report issued by the committee, its majority argued that medical malpractice cases should be subject to the same rules as other types of civil litigation.
“There appears to be a misconception that patients harmed by the negligent actions of healthcare providers somehow enjoy a windfall verdict in more populous counties,” the committee majority wrote in its report. “Many of these patients have endured substantial injuries seriously lessening their quality of life in perpetuity, requiring permanent medical care and assistance in activities of daily living.”
Zachary Shamberg, head of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, called the change “a dramatic step backwards” for long-term care providers in the state.
“This could ultimately disrupt the sustainability of our industry as we know it,” Shamberg said.
The court’s decision could return Pennsylvania to conditions in the late 1990s, when a medical liability insurance crisis prompted the Legislature and courts to act, said Curt Schroder with the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform, an association of health care providers and related businesses.
“We’re going to see cases that really have no business being in, say, the city of Philadelphia,” Schroder predicted. “We’re going to see jury awards skyrocket.”
The president of the trial lawyers’ Pennsylvania Association for Justice, Kila Baldwin, said the new rule “accomplishes the goal of returning fairness to the rules and the basis of our legal system of treating all parties equally under the law.”
“It’s really quite simple. Cases should be heard before twelve jurors that do not have a connection to a hospital or surgical center that is often times the largest employer in the county. The new rule levels the playing field and will improve access to justice for all Pennsylvanians,” Baldwin said in a statement.
Twenty years ago, the Legislature, governor and Supreme Court adopted a host of changes to address what was seen as a crisis in the state’s medical malpractice system, with high premiums for doctors and concern it was harming medical care.
The Legislature overwhelmingly passed the MCARE Act in 2002, signed by Republican Gov. Mark Schweiker, and restricted lawsuits to the county where the patient was allegedly injured.
The state Supreme Court, then with a Republican majority, in 2003 adopted its own similar rule about where medical malpractices cases can be filed. The court today has a 5-2 Democratic majority, and political contributions from plaintiffs trial lawyers tend to favor Democratic candidates, while Republicans are more supported by the insurance industry.
A brief filed two years ago in a Superior Court medical malpractice case, from a coalition of doctors’ associations and other medical groups, argued that overturning the venue rules would “put the commonwealth back on a ruinous path” by shifting cases to Philadelphia and other city courts.
In that case, a woman whose lawsuit against Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals Inc. and a host of other medical providers had been filed in Philadelphia did not want it to be transferred to the adjacent suburb of Delaware County. She lost that appeal.
The lawyer who filed the friend-of-the-court brief in that case on behalf of medical providers, Steven Burgess Davis, said Thursday he saw no reason for the court to reverse the policy.
“With all of the stressors placed on the healthcare industry and infrastructure over the past two years especially, I am left scratching my head wondering how this can be seen as good for the citizens of commonwealth right now,” Davis wrote in an email.