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Will med-mal cases get tougher to defend in this state?

Late in August, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed its own longstanding rule that required that medical malpractice cases be filed in the county where the alleged injury occurred, as an Associated Press story on NBCPhiladelphia.com, among other news sites, reports.

More than 2 decades ago, in response to what was then seen as a crisis in the med-mal system, the state legislature overwhelmingly passed MCARE (the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Fund), which among other things restricted the venue of medical suits. The legislation was signed into law in March 2002 by then-Gov. Mark Schweiker.

The following year, the state’s high court adopted a similar venue rule.

Over the years, doctor and hospital groups have been big supporters of the rule, arguing that any attempt to shift cases back to allegedly more plaintiff-friendly courts in Philadelphia and other cities would likely retrigger a crisis of higher med-mal premiums, doctor flight, and worse health care.

But a 2020 report by Pennsylvania’s nonpartisan Legislative Budget and Finance Committee took issue with these conclusions. It said that, following a national trend, the cost of medical professional liability insurance had fallen in the state since 2007. The report concluded that nothing in the available data supports the “conclusion that changes in the availability, cost, and affordability of medical professional liability insurance are the result of changes in Pennsylvania law.”

A more recent report by the high court’s Civil Procedural Rules Committee reached a similar conclusion, noting that med-mal cases should be subject to the same rules as any other type of civil litigation. A majority of the high court agreed.

Predictably, this decision sits well with patient groups and officials representing trial attorneys in the Keystone State.

“Cases should be heard before 12 jurors that do not have a connection to a hospital or surgical center that is often times the largest employer in the county,” said Kila Baldwin, president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice. “The new rule levels the playing field and will improve access to justice for all Pennsylvanians.”

Doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers, however, have predicted a “ruinous path” ahead.

A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.

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