This article spotlights a few Pennsylvania laws that could affect a medical malpractice case, including the time limits for bringing such claims in the state's civil court system. We'll also look at the rules that govern payment of damages as well as procedural requirements regarding expert testimony in Pennsylvania medical malpractice cases.
Time Limits on Pennsylvania Medical Malpractice Claims
Pennsylvania's statute of limitations limits the amount of time an injured patient has to file a medical malpractice lawsuit in court. In Pennsylvania, the time to file such a claim expires two years after the date the plaintiff knows or reasonably should know all of the following:
- an injury has occurred
- the conduct that caused the injury, and
- the relationship between the injury and the conduct that caused it.
However, regardless of those three factors, a medical malpractice claim must be brought within seven years of the date the injury occurred, unless it involves a foreign object left inside the body.
If medical malpractice results in wrongful death, a case must be filed in court within two years of the date of death.
A person who is injured by medical neligence while still a child has seven years from the date of his or her 20th birthday to bring a case to court, regardless of the date on which the injury actually occurred.
Damage Caps in Pennsylvania Medical Malpractice Cases
Like many states, Pennsylvania does limit damages in medical malpractice cases, but the cap is very specific. Pennsylvania does not limit either economic or non-economic damages, which are the two main categories of compensation that an injured patient can receive.
In Pennsylvania, the only limits on awards in medical malpractice cases apply to "punitive damages," which are damages imposed as punishment for particularly outrageous or dangerous behavior. Pennsylvania 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 that punitive damages are very rare in medical malpractice cases, so chances are that any claim you bring will not be subject to any sort of cap in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania also has a "periodic payments rule" that requires damages to be paid in installments if the future damages in a case total more than $100,000. "Future damages" are damages for medical bills, lost wages, and other losses that the injured person is expected to incur in the future due to disability or ongoing medical treatment related to the injury caused by the medical malpractice. Periodic payments occur automatically in cases with over $100,000 in future damages, unless the injured plaintiff objects.
Expert Requirements in Pennsylvania Medical Malpractice Cases
Pennsylvania also has several requirements regarding expert medical witness testimony both when a medical malpractice claim is initially filed and when it is brought to trial.
The affidavit of merit requirement says that a plaintiff's attorney must file a sworn affidavit or "certificate of merit," within 60 days of filing a medical malpractice lawsuit. The affidavit must be signed by the attorney, and it must state that an expert has provided a written statement that asserts one of the following things:
- there is a reasonable probability the defendant breached the standard of care,
- the defendant was responsible for the person who breached the standard of care, and/or
- expert testimony is not needed to pursue the claim.
A defendant who files a counterclaim must also file an affidavit of merit.
At trial, Pennsylvania also requires expert medical witness testimony to establish what the appropriate medical standard of care is and that the defendant breached it, "unless negligence is obvious to a lay person." An expert who testifies at trial must:
- be a physician who is actively engaged in practicing or teaching, and who is experienced in the field at issue,
- of the same or a similar specialty as the defendant, and
- board certified, if board certification is available and the defendant is board-certified.
The court can waive these requirements, however, if it can be shown that a particular expert has sufficient training, experience, or knowledge gained from actively practicing medicine or teaching within five years of the date of the injury.