Update on Medical Malpractice and Tort Reform

Tort reform is a benign term for describing the efforts of insurance companies and the medical profession to lobby federal and state legislators to enact laws that limit their exposure to settlements and large jury awards in medical malpractice cases. Tort reform has been no stranger to Pennsylvania as two primary changes in the law have caused the number of filings and awards to decrease in the last two decades.

In 2002, Pennsylvania passed the MCARE Act making subsequent changes to court rules governing the filing of malpractice cases. The first of these primary changes required attorneys representing medical malpractice plaintiffs to obtain from a medical expert a “certificate of merit.” This is a written opinion from a physician prepared to testify that the medical procedures fell below acceptable medical standards.

The second primary change required medical malpractice lawsuits to be brought only in the county where the alleged medical negligence occurred. Before this change in the law, plaintiffs could choose to file their lawsuit in a county in which they perceived juries to be more favorable, provided that the defendant did business in this county.

About tort reform, the American Medical Association (AMA) states:

The broken medical liability system remains one of the most vexing issues for physicians today. It places a wedge between physicians and their patients. It forces physicians to practice defensive medicine. It puts physicians at emotional, reputational and financial risk, and it drains resources out of an already financially strapped national health care system—resources that could be used for medical research or expanded access to care for patients.

Yet, since 2003, malpractice insurance companies have collected $4.3 billion more in premiums than they have paid out in claims to injured patients. Those opposed to tort reform argue that victims of serious injuries by the negligence of healthcare providers should not face unreasonable hurdles to recover compensation for their injuries. Despite tort reform, medical errors have continued to increase. Opponents claim tort reform has yet to prevent a single injury or save a life but has only served to diminish accountability and increase the profits of insurance companies.

In 2000, the Institute of Medicine released a lengthy report, To Err Is Human, stating that preventable medical errors result in up to 98,000 deaths in hospitals annually. Sadly, proponents of tort reform have focused more on reducing liability for these preventable errors and less on reducing them.

As a result, a July 2004 study shows that over a decade in which two-thirds of states passed “tort reform” measures that limit or restrict medical malpractice lawsuits, there was no improvement in safety: The number of avoidable deaths in hospitals alone is now approximately 195,000 per year, not including obstetrics patients.

On December 22, 2018, more than 15 years after the implementation of these changes, the Civil Procedural Rules Committee of the Supreme Court has proposed rescission of the venue rule in medical malpractice cases because it “no longer appears warranted.”

Currently, a long-anticipated study by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee failed to support the idea that lowering malpractice insurance costs improves the accessibility patients have to doctors. The Committee drew no conclusions and made no recommendations as to whether the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania should adopt the proposed rule change.

Medical malpractice claims, including those for medication-related negligence, are complicated. Often, many parties are involved in the chain of treatment. Powell Law features James F. Mundy, Esq., who has successfully litigated medical malpractice cases for several decades. Since 1956, our practice has evolved litigating personal injury claims, including medical malpractice cases, and building a body of knowledge and expertise that unquestionably provides our clients with an incomparable advantage. Powell Law has an established 115-year-old reputation throughout northeastern Pennsylvania. Contact Powell Law at call (570) 961-0777. The consultation is FREE.

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