On August 25, 2022, after extensive debate and consideration, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted amendments to the Rules of Civil Procedure to eliminate restrictions regarding Venue (where a lawsuit can be filed) that provided preferential treatment to Hospitals and Doctors in Medical Malpractice cases.
The amendments level the playing field between Victims and Health Professionals by removing a special Venue restriction providing that a lawsuit could only be filed in the County where the Malpractice occurred. Instead, Malpractice cases are treated like any other Injury case or Civil Lawsuit in which Venue is proper not just in the County where the incident occurred, but also any County where the Defendant can be served or regularly conducts business.
It is expected that the Venue change will level the playing field for Malpractice Victims by eliminating the huge advantage that Hospitals and Doctors enjoyed when defending Malpractice cases in suburban and rural counties which are notorious for Defense Verdicts or low monetary awards that do not fully compensate injury Victims.
Nevertheless, it is uncertain as to whether the Pennsylvania Legislature will take steps to attempt to reverse the Supreme Court’s action through legislation or a Constitutional Amendment.
What is Venue?
Venue is the place where something happens and, in the context of a lawsuit in Pennsylvania, it’s the County or Counties in which a lawsuit can be filed.
The general Venue rule for Civil Lawsuits in Pennsylvania is that a Defendant can be sued in the County (1) where the transaction or occurrence happened; (2) where the Defendant can be served with lawsuit papers; or (3) where the Defendant regularly conducts business.
So, when the Victim has an Injury claim, often he/she can choose from multiple Counties when deciding the Venue for the lawsuit.
The procedural rules allow the Victim to choose the Venue. However, the rules also allow the Defendant to object to the Venue if the chosen Venue for a particular case is very inconvenient for the parties or witnesses, in which case a Judge can decide to transfer Venue to a more appropriate County.
How Did Medical Malpractice Defendants Get a Preferential Venue Rule?
In 2002, in response to a perceived “Medical Malpractice Crisis” of a high number of case filings, high verdicts and increasing insurance premiums, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Act which, in part, implemented preferential Venue rules for Medical Malpractice cases.
Rather than Medical Malpractice Victims having a right to choose from multiple Counties, the Venue rule change provided that Venue of Medical Malpractice case was limited to “the county in which the cause of action arose.”
So, if an injury occurred in a Hospital in Chester County, the Venue for the Malpractice claim had to be Chester County, even if the Hospital had other locations in other Counties.
What Was the Problem with the Special Medical Malpractice Venue Rule?
On its face, the special rule may seem to make sense. Why not have the lawsuit Venue be limited to the location where the injury occurred?
The answer is fundamental fairness. Why should Hospitals, Doctors and other Medical Professional be entitled to special rules? Other injury cases can have Venue in multiple counties, so why limit the choices of a Malpractice Victim?
More importantly, the special Venue granted a clear advantage for Defendants in many cases.
Statistically, it is known that the urban counties of Pennsylvania, particularly Philadelphia and Allegheny Counties, have more favorable results in terms of both win/loss percentages and amount of compensation awarded in Medical Malpractice cases compared to suburban or rural counties.
So, if a Medical Malpractice Victim was injured in a suburban or rural County, he/she was put behind the eight ball by the special Venue rule, making it much more likely that he/she would lose the case outright or get a low verdict. This results in Medical Malpractice Victims receiving unfair treatment from our Court system compared to other litigants.
At the same time, there is no doubt that the special Venue rule, resulted in many non-catastrophic Medical Malpractice cases in suburban or rural Counties not being filed at all because of the risk of losing or getting and unfair Verdict in an unsympathetic Venue. It can also be argued that lack of accountability for all Medical Mistakes have likely made Pennsylvania’s medical institutions less safe. Accountability creates a financial incentive to improve safety.
Why and How were the Medical Malpractice Venue Rules Changed?
After extensive study and debate, the Rules Committee proposed the change to eliminate the special Venue rules for Medical Malpractice claims.
The Committee determined that the basic rationale in favor of the special Venue rules was the premise that juries in less populous counties are more likely to side in favor of Medical defendants and/or to award less compensation and that this was fundamentally unfair to the Victims.
The Committee concluded that Medical Malpractice claims should have the same Venue rules as any other Injury claim. The Committee also noted that the general Venue rules have safeguards for Defendants allowing them to object to improper or inconvenient Venue.
Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the Committee and, on August 25, 2022, amended the Venue rules eliminating the special treatment for Medical Malpractice claims. The Rule change becomes effective on January 1, 2023.
A backlash is expected from the insurance industry and it remains to be seen whether it will be able to convince the Pennsylvania Legislature to reinstate the Venue restriction through legislation or Constitutional Amendment.
However, for the time being it appears that the playing field for litigation between Victims of Medical Malpractice and the Medical Providers will be leveled on January 1, 2023.
Tim Rayne is a Medical Malpractice and Personal Injury Lawyer with the Chester County based law firm MacElree Harvey. For over 25 years, Tim has been helping injured victims of accidents and Medical Malpractice understand their legal rights and receive fair compensation for their injuries. Contact Tim at 610-840-0124 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Website www.TimRayneLaw.com.