Supreme Court mulls rule change over malpractice suits, Pa. counties where filed |
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Rich Cholodofsky

More than 100 malpractice lawsuits were filed in Westmoreland County courts since 2011 that claimed improper cardiac procedures were performed at Excela Health facilities a decade ago.

Many of those cases might have been filed in other counties had a proposed change to court rules being weighed by the state Supreme Court already been in place, according to the lawyer who represents dozens of patients who have sought damages from the hospital and two doctors named in the Excela lawsuits.

“It probably would have effected the Excela cases,” attorney Victor Pribanic said. “Our clients might have been better off if the cases were tried in Allegheny County or another county.”

Most of the Excela stent lawsuits, filed in 2011 and 2012, have been settled. Pribanic still has more than 40 cases pending in Westmoreland County related to the stent litigation.

His law firm, based in White Oak, has so far brought one case to trial. In 2017, a Westmoreland County jury rejected the claims of a North Huntingdon man who said he was the victim of unnecessary stent procedures in 2008.

The jury ruled in favor of Excela and Dr. Ehab Morcos.

“I think the rule should be the same for medical cases as every other case,” Pribanic said.

In December, a state civil court committee recommended a change to the Supreme Court rules, in place since 2003, that limits malpractice lawsuits to be filed only in the county where an incident is alleged to have occurred. The proposed change would allow lawyers to file those lawsuits in counties where a litigant resides or a medical facility is based, the same requirements that were in place before 2003.

It mirrors language that determines venue for all other civil case filings.

Curt Schroder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice, said the proposed change is unnecessary.

“We support the rule that was enacted in 2003,” Schroder said. “It had the desired effect that put an end to attorney venue shopping.”

According to statistics compiled by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, between 2000 and 2002 about 44 percent of malpractice cases in the state were filed in Philadelphia.

Pribanic said Philadelphia was the preferred location for malpractice lawsuits because jury verdicts tended to favor plaintiffs and have higher awards for money damages. Other more urban counties, such as Allegheny, also saw a heavy caseload of malpractice cases where verdicts were expected to favor plaintiffs, Pribanic said.

Schroder and other opponents of the proposal to rescind that rule said the venue limits worked as the number of malpractice lawsuits decreased throughout Pennsylvania and especially in the Philadelphia courts.

In 2017, there were 1,449 malpractice lawsuits were filed in Pennsylvania, with 28 percent of those filed in Philadelphia. Malpractice filings also decreased in Western Pennsylvania, where Allegheny County saw a 43 percent decrease from 2002 and Westmoreland County’s caseload dropped by nearly 58 percent, according to the AOPC.

“We don’t want to see the conditions that led to the medical malpractice crisis in the early 2000s recreated,” Schroder said.

The Supreme Court was expected to enact the rule change this year but in February delayed a final decision.

Justices said a decision will come next year after they review a study now under way by the state Legislature to determine what implications a change would have on the court system.

“We won a small skirmish in that it was not enacted quickly, but we don’t want people to lose sight that it is still an issue. This is still a concern. The battle over this isn’t over,” Schroder said.

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