Back in June of 2013, we published an article detailing a 45-percent decline in the number of medical malpractice case filings statewide. Armed with a few more years’ worth of data, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania corroborates these statistics, indicating that such cases are at their lowest level in fourteen years.
This new document counts 1,463 new medical malpractice case filings in 2014, “representing a 46.5 percent decrease from the number of cases filed during the ‘base years’ of 2000 to 2002, when statewide medical-malpractice case recording began.” (These base years saw filings in the range of 2,632 to 2,904.)
In 2014, there were 129 jury trials to end in a verdict, eighteen of which were for the plaintiffs. Of these eighteen, eleven were $500,000 or less, four were between $500,000 and $1 million, seven ranged from $1 million to $5 million, and two were more than $5 million. (The highest award went to the family of a brain-damaged girl who developed cerebral palsy and will need round-the-clock care for life–similar to the catastrophic case that Feldman Shepherd attorney Dan Weinstock handled in 2012 that resulted in a $78.5 million verdict.)
It is worth noting that this decline has come despite the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s lack of aggressive so-called “tort reform” measures, including caps on damages, limiting individuals’ ability to file claims, or forcing the losing party to pay the court costs of the opposing party–combinations of which have been introduced in Texas, Ohio, and Georgia. These are often cited by tort reform proponents as being essential to reining in perceived out-of-control litigation (which, according to the data, does not exist).
However, it is worth noting that the state did introduce a “certificate of merit rule” in 2003, in which plaintiffs must provide a written statement “that there exists a reasonable probability that the care, skill, or knowledge exercised in the treatment, practice, or work […] fell outside acceptable professional standards and that such conduct was a cause in bringing about the harm.” In other words, the person bringing a claim must preemptively provide a document that expresses his or her case is potentially meritorious. The legislature also implemented a rule in 2004 that was “designed to curb ‘venue-shopping,’” forcing plaintiffs to file suit in the jurisdiction in which alleged wrongdoing occurred rather than in places that have historically been more plaintiff-oriented.
The Legal Intelligencer, which published these findings, also suggests that medical malpractice cases have gotten significantly more costly to handle, and that (at least partially as a result) fewer, more specialized firms are pursuing them. Also, because of the decline in the number of filings, defendants are more aggressive about handling cases: “Cases take longer, settle later, and the result of that is the practice is one that is not amenable to a lawyer or a firm dabbling in it,” says one Pennsylvania attorney.
As Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille wrote a few years ago in response to similar findings in medical malpractice trends, “This represents another example of the history of collaboration and cooperation among the three branches of state government in addressing what, just a few years ago, was one of the Commonwealth’s more vexing challenges.” The decline in filings, which shows no signs of slowing or changing course, suggest that the modest tort reform measures that Pennsylvania has enacted have lowered the number of medical malpractice filings while simultaneously preserving private citizens’ rights to bring a claim in the civil justice system.