By Ezra Wohlgelernter
A recent article in The Inquirer regarding the new state rule allowing victims of medical malpractice to file lawsuits in the county where the medical provider has its principal place of business is replete with misstatements that lead the reader to incorrect conclusions.
The article “Philly’s medical malpractice cases are surging since a new state rule went into effect” cites the $43.5 million jury verdict in favor of Chris Maragos, an ex-Eagles captain who alleged that his career was cut short by negligent medical treatment of a knee injury, as the “latest example of an eye-popping malpractice verdict out of Philadelphia.”
As a trial lawyer who litigates medical malpractice cases in Philadelphia, I can assure you that there is no crisis of runaway juries doling out “eye-popping” payouts.
In 2019 (the last year before the courts were shut down for the pandemic), there were 17 medical malpractice jury verdicts in Philadelphia, according to data from Pennsylvania’s court system. Of those cases, 10 (58.8 percent) ended in defense verdicts. Of the seven cases where juries ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, one verdict (5.9 percent) was for $500,000 or less, one verdict (5.9 percent) was for more than $500,000 to $1 million, and five verdicts (29.4 percent) were for more than $1 million to $5 million. There were no medical malpractice jury verdicts in Philadelphia in 2019 that exceeded $5 million. In fact, in 2019, there was only one medical malpractice jury verdict in all of Pennsylvania that exceeded $10 million. It was in Bucks County. Moreover, in 2018, there were only two medical malpractice jury verdicts in all of Pennsylvania that exceeded $10 million. They were in Allegheny and Delaware Counties. That year, 69.6 percent of all medical malpractice jury verdicts in Philadelphia were for the defense.
I was not involved in Chris Maragos’ case. I suspect that the jury to a great degree took into account his lost earning potential as a professional football player. While every litigant is entitled to recoup their lost wages when a doctor’s negligence ends their career, most will never see a recovery commensurate with that of an NFL star athlete. As for other victims of medical malpractice who have prevailed before Philadelphia juries, I can assure you that there is no victory for patients who are catastrophically and permanently injured, who have lost their quality of life, who are in extreme emotional distress, who have medical bills piling up, and who have lost their ability to work.
Why are attorneys filing more medical malpractice lawsuits in Philadelphia since the rule change? “Fairness” is the short answer. Medical malpractice cases are complex, challenging to win, and require years of hard work and significant financial investment by a law firm. In many Pennsylvania counties, large health care systems are huge employers with a connection to the community that may make jurors more sympathetic to the defense. Philadelphia is deemed a fairer venue by attorneys who might otherwise decline a case in rural Pennsylvania for fear of juror bias. Moreover, fairness dictates that as large health care systems continue to take control of how health care is delivered throughout Pennsylvania, they should be able to be sued in venues where they regularly do business or have significant contacts, like all other defendants.
While the article provides the hospital industry talking point that allowing personal injury lawyers to move claims to Philadelphia and other venues “puts all Pennsylvanians’ health care at risk,” the exact opposite is true. Medical malpractice lawsuits play a crucial role in identifying and rectifying patient safety issues. For example, in the mid-1990s, insurance companies would only pay for a 24-hour hospital stay for newborn babies. Many neonatal problems do not manifest until 3-5 days of life, and infants were falling through the cracks after discharge and developing kernicterus, often resulting in catastrophic brain injury. Pennsylvania enacted legislation requiring insurers to pay for at least 48-hour hospital stays for newborns when the issue came to light, in part, through lawsuits brought by our firm and others.
There is much to be gained in patient safety when the court system is accessible to all.
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