The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that jury verdicts in medical malpractice suits are now at the lowest level in 15-years. Obviously, the state’s medical providers are likely to welcome the change and hope that malpractice insurance premiums will respond accordingly. Are these statistics evidence that Pennsylvania injury victims are not fairly being compensated? Statewide, Pennsylvania juries rendered 449 verdicts in 2004, with 78.4% of those in favor of the defendant. In 2015, the results declined to merely 101 verdicts, yet the percentage of those favoring the defense remained steady at 78.2%. From a more local view, Allegheny County, whose population is 1.2 million, saw their verdicts drop during the same period from 49 to 10. Philadelphia has long been the state’s largest handler of such filings, and their caseload has followed suit.
Per the Physician Insurers Association of America, based in Maryland, medical malpractice claims are decided by verdicts in only 8% of cases, as most are dropped or dismissed. The Pennsylvania data suggests malpractice claims are harder to sustain. Cases that progress to a verdict are mostly won by defendants. The Administration Office for the Pennsylvania Courts says approximately 80% now favor the defense. Last year, Lehigh and Northampton County had ten verdicts—no plaintiff emerged victoriously. The value of jury awards last year statewide included:
- 15 under $1 million
- 7 between $1-$5 million
- 1 between $5-$10 million
- 1 over $10 million
Explanations vary on these trends among medical and legal professionals most closely connected to the environment. Lawrence Kelly, of the Western PA Trial Lawyers Association, thinks the medical community and insurance market has created a bias among juries for these cases. He thinks the idea that physicians could largely leave entire areas due to malpractice liability, has led legislators to discourage filing. Meanwhile, a study at John Hopkins reveals that errors in hospitals deemed preventable are the third most common cause for U.S. deaths. Kelly says medical malpractice verdicts have reached a record low despite roughly 440,000 preventable death occurrences.
John Krah, with the Allegheny County Medical Society, feels the preventable death data is exaggerated, citing continuous improvements being made to avoid errors in the system. He feels that rising liability premiums insurance pose true threats, particularly to physicians in rural areas. Krah explained that rates often rose 30% annually, even when zero claims were filed. Krah noted that many claimants would try to get their case transferred to a Philadelphia court because the chances of winning were very good.
One rule that may be significantly contributing to a reduction in cases is that plaintiffs must complete a “certificate of merit” process. This requires claimants to hire experts to prove the case’s validity before reaching the court—a cost that is too high for many. Tom Baker, a professor of law & health at the University of Pennsylvania Law School says increasingly fewer injured patients receive compensation. He feels that malpractice is still a widespread problem, but there are hefty legal and administrative fees in the current system.
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