PROFESSIONAL LIABILITY CLIENT ALERT: Pennsylvania Mulls Repeal of Medical Malpractice Venue Restrictions; Both Plaintiff and Defense Bars Claim Victory From Study

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On February 3, 2020, the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee (“LBFC”) released its findings from a study of the impact of venue restrictions on medical malpractice cases. The LBFC warned that changes to the medical malpractice rules could lead to initial uncertainty in the malpractice insurance market, but also found no clear link between relaxed medical malpractice restrictions and the availability of affordable healthcare. This ruling left both the plaintiff bar and defense bar claiming an initial victory in the ongoing debate over proposed changes to Pennsylvania’s forum-shopping restrictions in medical malpractice cases.

Back in 2003, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania instituted new rules restricting a medical malpractice plaintiff to only file suit in the county where their injuries allegedly occurred. The rule was originally adopted – along with other restrictions – to curtail plaintiffs’ lawyers from filing cases in Philadelphia County on behalf of alleged victims who received treatment in other jurisdictions. Since the venue restrictions went into place, the number of cases filed in Philadelphia dropped from approximately 1,200 between 2000-2002 to 406 filings in 2017, while statewide medical malpractice filings in this same timeframe dropped by nearly 50% from a yearly average of 2,733 to 1,449.

At present, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court committee has started to explore rolling back the 2003 reforms, including dropping the venue restrictions. The proposed rollback prompted pushback from the insurance industry and defense bar claiming that loosening these venue restrictions will lead to higher malpractice insurance premiums and a flight of medical professionals from Pennsylvania. The Supreme Court committee agreed to postpone any rule changes until the LBFC completed a more thorough study into these claimed/potential impacts. This week, the LBFC published their findings  agreeing that such a  rollback could create some initial instability in the insurance markets; however they found no definitive proof that relaxing venue  restrictions on where a plaintiff can file a medical malpractice case would lead to a lack of available affordable healthcare. The LBFC specifically found it was nearly impossible to isolate what impact the venue restrictions had given that it was enacted as one of many  medical malpractice reforms.

The findings of the LBFC report have now been referred to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Civil Procedure Rules Committee for review, bringing the potential rollback of 2003 restrictions one step closer to implementation. Plaintiffs lawyers are lauding this decision while the defense bar argues that altering the 2003 venue restriction  will cause instability in the malpractice insurance markets which will lead to higher premiums and force doctors to leave Pennsylvania in search of lower insurance costs, thus reducing Pennsylvanians access to treatment. If the Supreme Court does elect to rollback the 2003 venue restrictions, doctors and insurance companies can expect to see a spike in filings in Philadelphia County, exposing them to plaintiff friendly jury pools inclined towards larger verdicts.

Photo: iStock.com/yavdat

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