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Key Changes to the Venue Rules for Medical Professional Liability Claims in Pennsylvania

Article by Daniel Margonari, Esq.

On Thursday, August 25, 2022, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court eliminated the venue carve-out applicable to medical malpractice actions filed in the Commonwealth.  Effective January 1, 2023, the rule requiring that medical professional liability claims be brought in the county in which the care occurred will no longer be in effect.

By way of background, in 2002, Pennsylvania passed the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Act (“MCARE Act”) in response to the increasing volume of medical malpractice filings in the Commonwealth.  As part of the reforms made, the MCARE Act resulted in the adoption of Pa.R.C.P. 1006(a.1), a carve-out under the Commonwealth’s civil venue rule for claims brought against healthcare providers.  Pursuant to this carve-out, “a medical professional liability action may be brought against a health care provider for a medical professional liability claim only in a county in which the cause of action arose.”  Generally, this required a case to be venued in the county in which the hands-on care of the patient occurred.

The goal of the MCARE Act and the corresponding venue rule was to eliminate frivolous medical malpractice cases and create a more stable environment for healthcare to be provided in the Commonwealth.  Statistically, the MCARE Act was successful resulting in a drop from 2,700 average annual filings in the years preceding the statute to approximately 1,500 average annual filings over the last six years.  The venue rule, specifically, appears to have been effective, as case volume data shows significant decreases in Philadelphia and Allegheny Counties, albeit with a degree of increased volumes in some of the surrounding counties.

The current rule change eliminates the Pa.R.C.P. 1006(a.1) carve out, allowing for a medical malpractice case to be brought in any county in which care occurred, where a defendant could be served or where any transaction or occurrence giving rise to the suit took place.  Practically speaking, this opens the door to plaintiffs’ ability to forum shop medical malpractice cases.

It should be noted that prior to the rule change, the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee provided input.  In a somewhat inconclusive report, the Committee recognized that the change is likely to impact malpractice insurance markets.  Nonetheless, the Committee suggested that the data did not necessarily suggest that the venue rule change would impact overarching healthcare costs or physician retention.

While this development opens the door to venue shopping, it remains to be seen how liberally the court will permit plaintiffs to forum shop medical malpractice actions.  It can also be anticipated that a host of issues with regard to venue – such as forum non conveniens and the applicability of forum clauses in admission paperwork – will be coming to a head in the court system in the following years.

Finally, while the rule change will be taking effect January 1, 2023, efforts are already underway to have our legislature effectively reinstate the venue restriction.  Whether these efforts will be successful remains to be seen.  In any event, these developments create a degree of uncertainty and mark a clear shift as to a procedural issue that has otherwise remained relatively stable for 20 years.