If you live in Pennsylvania and are thinking of filing a medical malpractice lawsuit, there are a few state laws that you need to know about. These cases are usually extremely complicated, and you'll most likely need the help of an experienced medical malpractice attorney, but it can be helpful to understand the basics of the process before you decide to get started. This article will discuss some of those basics, including:
All states, including Pennsylvania, have laws called "statutes of limitations" that set specific time limits for filing a lawsuit in the state's civil court system. There are different deadlines for different types of cases, but the time limits are always strictly enforced. That means if you try to file your lawsuit after the applicable deadline has passed, the court will almost certainly toss out your case as time-barred (unless some rare exception exists). So that's why it's so important to understand how statutes of limitations work—and to comply with them.
In Pennsylvania, the standard statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases gives the plaintiff (that's the injured patient or a representative) two years from the date the alleged malpractice occurred to get the lawsuit filed. But, like most states, Pennsylvania law applies what's known as the "discovery rule" to medical malpractice cases. The discovery rule pauses (or "tolls," in legalese) the statute of limitations in situations where the injured patient didn't know—and couldn't have reasonably known—about the malpractice right away. In those cases, the two-year statute of limitations "clock" starts to run on the date when the patient knows, or reasonably should know, about the injury and that the health care provider's conduct caused the injury.
Pennsylvania also has a law on the books called a "statute of repose" that sets an absolute limit of seven years on the discovery rule in medical malpractice cases, regardless of whether the patient knew about (or could have known about) their injuries. However, in 2019 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the statute of repose for medical malpractice cases was unconstitutional, which means that there is now effectively no outside time limit on the filing of claims where the malpractice couldn't have been discovered soon after it occurred. (Yanakos v. UPMC, 655 Pa. 615 (2019).) Note, though, that if you're relying on the discovery rule when filing your medical malpractice lawsuit, you have the burden of proving that you didn't discover—and couldn't have discovered—the health care provider's negligence any sooner than you did.
Finally, Pennsylvania has a special time limit for cases in which the injured patient is a minor (younger than 18) at the time of the alleged malpractice. In that situation, the child (or a representative) must file the lawsuit within seven years of the date of the medical error, or before the minor's 20th birthday, whichever is later.
(42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5524; 40 Pa. Stat. § 1303.513 (2022).)
In their efforts at tort reform, many states have passed laws that set out specific procedural rules that patients in medical malpractice cases must follow when filing their lawsuits. In Pennsylvania, state law requires the plaintiff (or the plaintiff's attorney) to file a document called a "certificate of merit" at the beginning of the case.
A certificate of merit must state that an "appropriate licensed professional" has provided a written statement that asserts one of the following:
The certificate of merit must be filed either alongside the complaint that begins the case, or within 60 days after filing the complaint. And a separate certificate of merit must be filed for each health care provider named in the lawsuit.
The "appropriate licensed professional" who supplies the statement in support of a certificate of merit need not be the same person who will actually testify as an expert witness on behalf of the injured patient at trial. But that professional must be an expert with "sufficient education, training, knowledge and experience" to provide "credible, competent testimony" that the defendant health care provider failed to meet the acceptable medical standard of care in the case.
These rules can be found at Pa. Rules of Civil Procedure No. 1042.3. And a sample certificate of merit can be found at Pa. Rules of Civil Procedure No. 1042.10.
Some states place "caps" (or limits) on the amount of damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff in a successful medical malpractice case. Most states with damage caps limit only noneconomic damages, which can include compensation for losses that are hard to place a specific dollar amount on, such as pain and suffering and emotional distress.
In Pennsylvania, though, the caps on awards in medical malpractice cases apply only to punitive damages, which are intended as punishment for particularly outrageous or dangerous conduct. Pennsylvania typically caps punitive damages in medical malpractice cases at two times the amount of actual damages in the case. It's important to keep in mind, though, that punitive damages are very rare in medical malpractice cases, so chances are that most claims will not be subject to any sort of cap in Pennsylvania.
(40 Pa. Stat. § 1303.505 (2022).)