Courting Justice: Medical Malpractice Filings Continue To Trend Downward

June 6, 2013

By Robert N. Hunn

What’s that sound? It’s the sound of tort reformers crying in their coffee as new factual information comes to light that further torpedoes their claim that we have a medical malpractice crisis. Recently, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts reported that the filing of medical malpractice cases were down 10% in 2012 from the previous year.

In fact, the filing of medical malpractice cases has been trending downward for the last 11 years; ever since tort reform was passed in 2002. Today, there are 44.8% fewer malpractice cases filed in Pennsylvania than 10 years ago. In Philadelphia, the jurisdiction that tort reformers call the “judicial hellhole,” medical malpractice filings are down 68% from a decade ago.

And what happened to those crazy juries that tort reformers like to refer to as rendering jackpot justice? In 2012, all 19 jury verdicts in med mal cases tried in Montgomery County were in favor of the defense. In the same year, there were no plaintiff verdicts in Bucks County, and 6 out of 8 verdicts in Delaware County were for the defense. In Philadelphia, more than 50% of the verdicts in medical malpractice cases were in favor of the physician.

Why are there less malpractice cases being filed? A lot of people attribute this to the 2002 passage of tort reform which made it economically less viable for a plaintiff’s lawyer to bring anything but a catastrophic injury case. I field numerous phone calls from people each week who have a legitimate gripe about the way they were treated. But their compensable damages are so limited that any settlement or verdict would be reduced to close to zero due to the cost of pursuing the case. Please don’t kid yourself. Even if you have an indefensible medical malpractice case, rarely, if ever, will the defendant’s insurance company throw up the white flag and immediately settle the case. They still require you to go through the litigation process before they even broach the topic of settlement. That costs money. A lot of money.

What is more disturbing to me is the statistic out of Montgomery County that 19 out of 19 medical malpractice verdicts were for the defense. Are we really to believe that in all 19 cases, the evidence that the plaintiff presented didn’t prove a single case of malpractice? It seems to me that more and more, juries are bent on finding that a doctor didn’t do anything wrong even if the plaintiff proves a case of malpractice.

One reason for this, in my humble opinion, is that the tort reformers, on a grass roots level, have successfully snookered the public into believing that a plaintiff’s verdict hurts them individually in some way (higher insurance premiums, less available doctors, etc). Not only is this false, but a recent study shows that malpractice verdicts promote the safe practice of medicine among healthcare providers.

Another reason is changing social values. We are sadly moving away from a time when we thought of ourselves as our brother’s keeper to a time where we just think of ourselves. When we hear about the plight of a fellow citizen, our first reaction is “better him than me.”

Sad, but I think true.