Pennsylvania Tort Reform
What’s In Store for Personal Injury Victims?
Most people who hear about tort reform do not think that this abstract term will ever apply to them. But they could be wrong. Tort reform, sometimes referred to as civil-justice reform, is essentially an effort to curb personal injury and medical malpractice claims and payouts to victims. Hailed by proponents as a savior for the healthcare industry as a whole, and doctors in high-risk specialties in particular, tort reform measures typically cap certain types of damages claims, require certification of an injury before a lawsuit is filed, require claims to be filed in the county where the malpractice occurred (that could be different than the victim’s home county) and use other measures that limit a victim’s ability to obtain compensation for an injury suffered at the hands of a doctor.
Recently, national politician Newt Gingrich stepped onto Pennsylvania’s stage to advocate for stricter tort reform measures similar to those enacted in Texas several years ago. He argued that further tort reform is necessary to prevent a brain drain of Pennsylvania doctors from leaving the state for places that are less hospitable to personal injury victims.
The Effects of Pennsylvania’s Previous Tort Reform Efforts
Always a hot button topic, tort reform has reared its head in Pennsylvania before. In 2002, the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted and Governor Mark Schweiker signed the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Act (MCARE). This law lowered the limits of required insurance coverage limits for primary care physicians and specialists, established a fund for damage awards that supplemented physicians’ traditional medical malpractice insurance with assessments on physicians and on percentages of punitive damages awards as well as placing caps on punitive damages and certain other recoveries after a personal injury.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court also enacted procedural rules, including requiring plaintiffs to obtain a certificate of merit for their injuries before proceeding with a medical malpractice claim, as well as requiring that a personal injury victim must file the claim in the county where the malpractice occurred.
MCARE and the procedural rule changes had a precipitous effect on damages claims and awards: some counties have reported as much as a 33 percent drop in medical malpractice filings since MCARE was enacted and the court rules were changed. Physicians and hospitals providing services in high-risk specialties such as obstetrics have paid less for malpractice premiums as well.
New Tort Reform Proposals in Pennsylvania
Now, legislation is currently under consideration in the General Assembly to enact even stricter tort reform measures. As noted earlier, even national politicians have jumped into the fray calling for higher hurdles to claimants. Current bills in consideration include provisions that will:
- Require a certificate of merit for the injury before suit commences
- Codify the court rules changes with regard to venue
- Form a new appellate court called the Medical Professional Liability Court to handle medical professional liability claims
- Cap damages for noneconomic injuries and punitive damages
These changes and others can greatly affect the compensation that seriously injured victims of medical malpractice can obtain. Physicians’ lobbyist groups argue that although Pennsylvania’s previous tort reform efforts have lowered malpractice claims and the cost of medical professional liability insurance, even more reductions are necessary to keep Pennsylvania doctors in Pennsylvania. But plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that catastrophically injured victims and their families face serious hurdles to obtaining recovery in exchange for lower doctor’s insurance premiums.
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