Pennsylvania liability lawsuits down for 6th straight year

Despite a lower number of cases, insurance premiums have not significantly decreased for the state's physicians.

By Alicia Gallegos — Posted June 8, 2011

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Medical liability lawsuits in Pennsylvania decreased in 2010 for the sixth consecutive year, a trend officials say is associated with rules created by the state in 2002 to reduce frivolous lawsuits.

In 2010, 1,491 medical liability lawsuits were filed in the state, a drop of about 45 from 2009, according to data released online May 18 by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. Since 2002, filings of such lawsuits in the state have declined by more than 45%. Philadelphia, which handles the largest court caseload in the state, experienced a nearly 70% decrease.

"Pennsylvania's judiciary collaboratively addressed a complex medical malpractice litigation crisis, and the latest figures show the progress made in the last seven years," Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said in a statement. "One of our fundamental priorities is to assure the Commonwealth's citizens that the legal process will not be abused in malpractice cases. We're very encouraged by these statistics."

In 2002, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania made it mandatory for plaintiffs to obtain a certificate of merit from a medical professional before their lawsuit could move forward. The court also required plaintiffs to file lawsuits in the county where the negligent act allegedly occurred.

At the time, many plaintiffs were filing claims in cities, such as Philadelphia, that were known for more "plaintiff friendly" juries and for higher jury awards, said Ralph Schmeltz, MD, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society. The Pennsylvania court system started recording detailed medical liability claims data from each county seven years ago.

Despite the lower filings, Dr. Schmeltz said there has not been a significant drop in medical liability insurance premiums. After lawsuit restrictions go into effect, there often is a catch-up period before premiums reflect the changes, he said. In Pennsylvania, internists pay about $30,000 in premiums per year, while general surgeons pay about $115,000, according to 2009 and 2010 data from Medical Liability Monitor.

"I'm sort of surprised we haven't seen that decline yet. My hope is there would've been significant [premium] decreases," he said. "In the physician community, professional medical liability insurance is still a major issue."

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