A lighter medical malpractice caseload in Pennsylvania has become the "new normal" as reforms initiated by the state Supreme Court reach their 10th anniversary, attorneys and jurists say.
Laura Feldman, president of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, used the term "new normal" to describe the impact of the changes, which have seen reductions in the number of case filings.
Not only the number of filings, but also the number of plaintiff verdicts, have continued to drop in the 10th year since the state Supreme Court began requiring that such cases be brought in the venue only where the cause of action arose and that a certificate of merit be obtained from a medical professional to certify the lawsuit before complaints are filed.
Those experts must agree there is a "reasonable probability" that a medical malpractice defendant deviated from the accepted standard of medical care.
The number of medical malpractice filings fell from 2,904 in 2002, before the changes went into effect, to 1,528 in 2011, according to statistics provided by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said the 47 percent decrease in medical malpractice filings between 2002 and 2011 shows that many of the filings before the changes were made may not have been meritorious lawsuits and may just have been filed to obtain settlements.
Although the court does not have data on this particular point, Justice Castille said that anecdotally he attributes some of the drop in filings to the fact that physicians have a new responsibility put on them to state that a malpractice case should go forward against one of their fellow doctors.
"It kind of shifts the gatekeeping to experts," he said. "I thought it would be fairly easy to get experts to testify to anything. That doesn't seem to be the case."
The Supreme Court has been asked to make further changes, such as capping damages including on pain and suffering, Justice Castille said, but further rule changes are not on the court's radar.
"Clearly because the cases have become much more expensive to prosecute, people are setting standards. If they aren't worth" a lot in damages, then plaintiffs attorneys will not take the cases, Ms. Feldman said.
It used to be that some plaintiffs' attorneys thought, if a case was a weak case, they might be OK if they could file in Philadelphia County, Ms. Feldman said.
The rule changes have led to fewer "casual malpractice lawyers" pursing these types of cases, Ms. Feldman said.
"Essentially, the people who have done this work and are experienced in the work are filing the cases in this point in time," she said.
Daniel J. Rovner, a defense attorney with Post & Post in Berwyn, Montgomery County, and co-chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association's medical-legal committee, said the reforms have been helpful but "there is still room for tort reform."
Despite the 10-year downward trend, there was a small uptick in the number of medical malpractice filings in Pennsylvania between 2010 and 2011. There were 1,528 filings in 2011 and 1,491 filings in 2010; 2010, meanwhile, had the lowest number of filings since the rule changes.
The highest number of filings since the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts began keeping track was 2,904 filings in 2002.