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Malpractice lawsuits in Pennsylvania continue to decline

The number of medical malpractice cases filed against Pennsylvania doctors and hospitals dropped in 2010, the sixth consecutive annual decline.

"In reality, medical malpractice lawsuits are not as prolific as people think," Pittsburgh attorney George Kontos said. "Any good attorney is very cautious about taking a case. I probably reject about 90 percent of people that come to me."

In 2002 — the year malpractice lawsuits peaked at 2,904 — new rules designed to weed out frivolous lawsuits took effect, and experts credit those rules with the decline in lawsuits in the years that followed.

One requires plaintiffs to get another doctor in the same field to sign off on the claims, showing the suit had merit. Another requires malpractice claims to be filed in the county where the alleged malpractice occurred. That prevents lawyers from filing cases in counties where they believe juries will be more sympathetic, lawyers said.

Last year, 1,491 malpractice suits were filed, according to a report released last week by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

Dr. Ralph Schmeltz of Mt. Lebanon, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, said the decline is encouraging but further changes are necessary. He disputed state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille's assertion last week that the medical malpractice "crisis is over."

"We still see a significant problem with things like defensive medicine. Physicians are very concerned with getting sued," Schmeltz said.

"We've seen a drop in the number of filings, but that hasn't resulted in liability premiums going down in Pennsylvania. When you're trying to recruit physicians, you're looking at a national market."

Filings in Allegheny County peaked at 426 in 2002. Last year, there were 326, up from 263 in 2009, an increase lawyers and doctors groups labeled a statistical anomaly.

Attorneys also attributed the drop statewide to an increase in litigants using private mediators.

"Over the past 10 years, private mediation has definitely increased," said attorney Bryan Neft, an officer in the civil litigation section of the Allegheny County Bar Association.

Court officials reported 163 cases reached a jury in 2010. Of those verdicts, 133 — 81 percent — favored the defense. In Allegheny County, 12 of 14 verdicts were in favor of the defense.

"There's not a medical malpractice crisis in this state. There hasn't been for many years," said Kontos. "A plaintiff's attorney can't afford to take a frivolous lawsuit."

Plaintiffs' attorneys are usually only paid if they win, he said.

The malpractice numbers were released as the Legislature debates bills that would reduce so-called lawsuit abuse.

Pennsylvania law holds that if a jury finds a company or doctor liable — even 1 percent — the company or doctor could have to pay an entire multimillion-dollar verdict if other defendants cannot pay.

The proposed Fair Share Act, which passed the state House, would hold defendants responsible only for the portion of the verdict a jury assigns to them if it is less than 60 percent. Defendants judged to have a liability of more than 60 percent could still pay an entire award.

Trial lawyers groups have lined up against the bill, which is generally supported by business and medical interests.

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