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March 18, 2004 - Data shows fewer medical malpractice suits filed in 2003

One-third fewer medical malpractice lawsuits were filed in Pennsylvania last year than were filed in 2002, according to preliminary figures released this week by the state Supreme Court.

The count, the first of its kind in the state, was meant to indicate whether tighter rules for filing lawsuits could help stabilize the rising insurance premiums that physicians say are forcing them to leave the state or close their practices.

In addition, the new research shows that only a fraction of the lawsuits filed eventually reach a jury verdict. Of those jury verdicts, nearly three-fourths favored the physicians and hospitals who are typically the defendants.

But the figures do not show the fate of the other cases that did not reach a verdict - whether still pending, dismissed or settled - or how much money was paid out to the alleged victims of medical mistakes. Meanwhile, the state's larger malpractice insurers have continued to raise rates in recent months, although the increases have not been as steep as the previous year's jumps.

The court's new numbers were injected into a heated dialogue over who or what is to blame for the rising medical malpractice insurance premiums.

Physicians, hospitals, insurers and many Republicans have clamored for changes to a court system that they say returns huge jury awards. But some Democrats, victims' advocates, and lawyers insist that hospitals must work harder to protect patients and the state must stop insurers from using questionable business practices that result in volatile rate swings.

Many in government from both parties credited the drop in the number of lawsuits filed to the reforms the Legislature passed in 2002.

Some, including those in the hospital industry, cautioned that the one-year drop does not necessarily indicate a trend.

Regardless of whether those limits on jury awards ever materialize, Gov. Ed Rendell said Thursday that the new figures should bring relief to the health-care industry, which complains that it is often less expensive to settle lawsuits than to pay lawyers and expert witnesses to defend against them.

The count by courthouse staffs across the state found that 1,989 malpractice cases were filed in 2003, down from 2,957 in 2002, 2,714 in 2001, and 2,686 in 2000. The figures aren't entirely final yet: those from Delaware County were only complete through Nov. 24, 2003.

From January 2000 to July 2003, 1,143 lawsuits reached a verdict, and juries decided 834 of those in favor of the defendants.

Philadelphia - blamed by physicians and insurers for producing juries that dump huge awards on plaintiffs - saw the largest numerical drop in cases filed, from 1,365 in 2002 to 577 last year, or 58 percent.

But the court staff that oversaw the count noted that some cases that would have been filed in Philadelphia in the past were instead filed in other counties, such as Montgomery County, which practically saw a fivefold jump from 32 in 2002 to 151 last year.

The legislative reforms include requiring that an independent physician or expert certify the viability of a medical malpractice lawsuit and ending the practice of "venue shopping" in which attorneys move cases to the county where a favorable jury verdict is most likely.

The latter was conceived to end the alleged practice of filing a lawsuit in Philadelphia to capitalize on supposedly favorable juries there, even if the incident happened outside the city.

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