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Medical Malpractice

Many Pennsylvania laws concerning medical malpractice liability got an overhaul effective March 20, 2002, thanks to the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error (MCARE) Act.   Medical malpractice actions are those brought against entities or individuals due to injury to a person or for causing wrongful death through medical action or inaction.

Any Pennsylvania lawyer representing medical malpractice clients must bring such actions no later than two years after the injured party discovers or reasonably should have discovered that he or she has been injured due to another party’s conduct.  Pennsylvania courts have adopted this two-year discovery rule for injuries to plaintiffs, but it does not apply in death cases.  The statute of limitations doesn’t begin running against a minor until the age of 20, though neither insanity nor imprisonment will increase the time period for adults.

The state of Pennsylvania has adopted a modified rule of comparative negligence.  Under Pennsylvania law, a plaintiff’s recovery is barred only in cases where his or her contributory negligence is greater than the causal negligence of the defendants.  In all other situations, a plaintiff’s damages will be diminished in proportion to how much negligence is attributable to him or her.

In order to succeed in a medical malpractice case, plaintiffs and their Pennsylvania lawyers must provide expert testimony that defendants deviated from the standard of care and that this deviation was the proximate cause of injury.  The only exception to this requirement is “where the matter … is so simple, and the lack of skill or want of care so obvious, as to be within the experience and comprehension of even nonprofessional persons.”  (Chandler v. Cook, 265 A.2d 794, 796 (Pa. 1970).)

On May 19, 2002, strict standards regarding the competency of medical experts to testify in court kicked into effect under Pennsylvania law.  Experts must typically be actively engaged in clinical practice or teaching, or be retired for less than five years.  Experts must practice in the same or a similar specialty in order to testify as to whether another physician met the standard of care.  In cases where the defendant is board-certified, the medical expert testifying must be as well. Courts do have some leeway to waive these requirements if provided evidence of an expert witness’s adequate training, experience, and knowledge in the field at hand.

Pennsylvania law does not impose a cap on compensatory damages, but does provide for a program of state-sponsored excess insurance.  In cases where punitive damages are awarded, 25 percent of those damages must be paid into the MCARE Fund instead of going to the prevailing party.  Additionally, punitive damages against a physician cannot be higher than 200 percent of compensatory damages, unless intentional misconduct has been proven.

Under Pennsylvania law, the state has waived sovereign immunity for itself and its employees in medical malpractice cases, although certain limits do apply.  If an employee was acting pursuant to a duty required by a statute or regulation, or if the act was within the discretion granted by a statute or regulation, then liability is limited to $250,000 per claimant and $1 million in the aggregate.  Generally, sovereign immunity has not been waived in medical malpractice cases brought against local governments and/or their employees.

Pennsylvania law provides for a “Good Samaritan” statute, which grants immunity to doctors and nurses present at or called to the scene of an emergency from liability for care rendered in good faith.  The only exception to this statue is for acts or omissions that are grossly negligent or intentionally designed to harm.

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