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Medical malpractice case filings in Pennsylvania have dropped by one-third in 2003, according to statistics released by the state’s unified judiciary. The report was requested by the Rendell administration to document how recent tort reform initiatives of the General Assembly and Supreme Court have affected malpractice litigation in the state. One of the effects detailed in the report, issued by Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy, apparently stemmed from the Supreme Court rule requiring that cases be filed in the county where the alleged medical mistake took place. In Philadelphia, a county traditionally favored by the plaintiff’s bar, the number of med mal filings last year dropped by half to 577 cases – compared with the average number of filings for the three previous years, about 1,200. Many of the cases not filed in Philadelphia may have gone to Montgomery County, traditionally viewed as more defense-friendly. Montgomery County saw a 372 percent increase in its medical malpractice filings last year. That jump was most likely caused by the influx of cases transferred from Philadelphia after the venue rule took effect, according to Philadelphia court officials. But the venue rule was not the only change in malpractice law and rules. Since 2002, the Supreme Court has issued rules mandating plaintiff lawyers file a doctor’s affidavit authenticating the merit of a malpractice case. In releasing the information, officials with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts noted difficulties in collecting the statistics because some counties do not have ways of tracking medical malpractice cases through their systems. “These results are encouraging, though we are hesitant to infer a definite trend from this preliminary data,” state Court Administrator Zygmont A. Pines said in a statement. At Cappy’s request, all counties are supposed to be taking care to collect more specific data, and a rule detailing an annual reporting requirement is expected soon, said Art Heinz, a spokesman for the AOPC. Doctors and hospitals, who have decried rising malpractice premiums in recent years, also said it was too early to tell if the one-year drop in filings indicated a trend. The Pennsylvania Medical Society has argued that capping non-economic damages is the only certain method for reducing the amount liability insurers must pay out to injured plaintiffs – a measure they have thus far been unsuccessful in pushing through the Legislature. “The question is did reform cause this drop in cases or is it a statistical aberration?” said Stephen Foreman, a lobbyist for the Medical Society. “I’d like to see a drop over three or four years. The venue rule and the certificate of merit are great developments, but I don’t want to make conclusions yet.” While fewer cases were filed, Foreman said there is no evidence the amount of money paid to plaintiffs has been reduced. And it’s been reported that malpractice insurers have continued to raise premium rates in Pennsylvania. Trial attorneys, however, argued the downturn in case filings is significant and that it shows the impact of reforms. “The numbers will keep dropping,” said Robert Mongeluzzi, president of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association. “The substantial restrictions we have in place have permanently altered how cases can be filed in Pennsylvania.” The question, Mongeluzzi said, is when the insurance premiums will go down. That won’t happen until there is greater regulation of the insurance industry, he said, citing the battle cry of the plaintiff lobby. Mark Phenicie, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association, attributed the drop in filings in part to the publicity of the issue and lawyers’ consequent reluctance to litigate more marginal cases. “The fact that the filings are going down is an indication of how hard it is to win a medical malpractice case,” Phenicie said. “The insurance industry and the doctors won this one. They ought to declare victory and move on.” Gov. Edward G. Rendell last week called the statistics good news for the health care industry, whose representatives tell him that it is often less expensive to settle lawsuits than to pay attorneys and expert witnesses to defend them in court. “Even if they won their cases in front of juries . . . they incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs,” Rendell told The Associated Press. “It’s not just the verdicts, it’s the cost of litigation.” The court statistics also showed the number and outcome of med mal jury verdicts by county from January 2000 to July 2003. While more than 10,300 medical malpractice cases were filed during that period, juries returned only 1,143 verdicts in the same time frame. Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge William J. Manfredi, who supervises the civil division, noted that that trend holds true for other case categories also. Only about 10 percent of cases filed actually go to verdict in Philadelphia, he said. The remainder are settled, mediated or dismissed. Notably, the statistics don’t indicate what happened to cases that never went to trial – whether they were dismissed, settled or are still pending. The numbers do not show the amount of money actually paid to plaintiffs. Of the verdicts reported statewide, 72 percent were in favor of the defense and 10 percent were awards of more than $1 million. In Philadelphia, 60 percent were defense verdicts, and 20 percent were awards of more than $1 million.

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