Full Circle

by Attorney Veronica A. Richards

In this, my last article for the Advocate as President of WPTLA, I will end where I began, examining the landscape of litigating cases today. Are the obstacles we face in seeking justice for a victim of negligence becoming too high to overcome? Is what we seek to accomplish worth the fight? Over the past year we’ve discussed the onslaught of news touting the Medical Malpractice Crisis, the negative association of the term “trial lawyer” and how MCARE has changed how we must evaluate and prosecute medical malpractice cases.

The biggest area of change since inception of MCARE that may negatively impact the practicalities of litigation is the Certificate of Merit (“COM”) requirement. The COM requirement was conceivably intended to reduce the number of “frivolous” filings. A decrease of frivolous lawsuits serves us and our clients well. I am not suggesting that the COM requirement is all bad; but like most changes that are made in our system, we must continually evaluate the impact.

As most of us recognize, the media coverage sounding the alarm on the “Medical Malpractice Crisis” (caused by greedy trial lawyers) and the record number of doctors fleeing our Commonwealth to avoid high premiums, was nothing but a myth! The numbers do not lie. There was never any crisis. Statewide the total number of medical malpractice filings has never been high and in fact, it has dramatically decreased over the past five years. In 2002 there were 2903 medical cases filed. In 2003 the number decreased to 1712 and in 2005 and 2006 there were even less, 1700 and 1693 respectively, an astounding reduction of 38% since 2002. Does anyone really believe that the number of injuries to patients by negligent health care providers has declined since 2002? Incidentally, in this same time period most insurers and medical providers made record profits.

Now who ultimately benefits from the legislative changes in prosecuting a medical malpractice case? I don’t think it is our clients. The necessity of paying costly expert fees upfront makes it much more difficult to accept even a clear liability case when there are only moderate damages. I have heard many colleagues commenting on how they have had to reject cases that would have been pursued pre-MCARE. How does this impact the victims of medical negligence? And what about the medical providers and their carriers? Are they feeling the same squeeze from the legislature and the media?

One could not pick up a newspaper or watch a local news cast over the past few days without hearing how our region’s leading health care provider and insurer made profits of $459 million on revenues of $5 billion through the first nine months of fiscal year 2007, so profitable that it decided to lease a second corporate jet to the tune of $280,000.00 per month. It also added to its physician staff by 170, an increase of approximately 7%. While one could conceivably argue that increasing the number of doctors will definitely serve the public interest, I am struggling to find a patient care justification for why a tax-exempt, very profitable “non-profit” entity needs not one, but two corporate jets. Forgive my skepticism, but how many times have we heard from jurors that two inevitable topics that come up during deliberations are the increase in health insurance premiums and the skyrocketing costs of health care. This does not bode well for the plaintiff as a lot of people have been conditioned to believe that a high verdict will somehow negatively impact their pocketbook. Is there any chance that we can get jurors to talk about the record profits and corporate jets?

So what do we do in a landscape that is always changing and often making our jobs more difficult? Throw in the towel? No. We continue to adapt, march forward and nobly help and serve those who would otherwise be victimized twice – first by their trusted physician and then by a legislature that seems for the moment to have forgotten the plight of the average Joe searching for justice.

With our Main office located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (PA), we are happy to evaluate medical malpractice cases from all of Western Pennsylvania including Greensburg, Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Sharon, New Castle, Butler, Beaver, Cranberry Township, Kittanning, Washington, Indiana, New Kensington, Monroeville, Murrysville, Latrobe and throughout Allegheny County, Westmoreland County, Butler County, Beaver County, Mercer County, Fayette County, Lawrence County, Armstrong County, Washington County, Cambria County, and Indiana County.

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