Pennsylvania Medical Malpractice Laws

A look at the Pennsylvania medical malpractice lawsuit filing deadline and the state's "Certificate of Merit" requirement for these kinds of cases.

By , J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated 8/10/2022

A medical malpractice case is a complex undertaking in any state, and Pennsylvania is no exception. In this article, we'll take a look at the Pennsylvania statute of limitations filing deadline for medical malpractice cases, and the state's "Certificate of Merit" requirement for these kinds of lawsuits. Read on for the details.

The Pennsylvania Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations

First, some background for readers who may not be fluent in the language of "legalese": A statute of limitations is a state law that sets a limit on the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit. There are different deadlines for different kinds of cases.

Like a lot of states, Pennsylvania has a statute of limitations that applies specifically to medical malpractice lawsuits. The Pennsylvania law says that an injured patient must file their claim within two years of the date on which the defendant health care provider committed the alleged medical malpractice. However, the "clock" for this two-year time period will be "tolled" (meaning it won't run) until the plaintiff actually knows (or should know, in the eyes of the law) that they suffered an injury that was caused by the defendant's malpractice.

The Pennsylvania law goes on to mandate that most medical malpractice lawsuit must be filed within seven years of the date on which the underlying medical error was allegedly committed, regardless of whether the plaintiff knew or should have known that they were injured by the defendant's wrongdoing. But in 2019, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that that rule, called a "statute of repose," is unconstitutional. The court's decision 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 that if you try to argue that you didn't know about the malpractice within the initial two years after it occurred, 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.

Having read all of this, you might be wondering what happens if Pennsylvania's statute of limitations deadline has passed, but you try to file your medical malpractice lawsuit anyway. It's a safe bet that the doctor or health care facility you're trying to sue will ask the court to dismiss the case, and the court will grant the request. If that happens, that will be the end of your lawsuit. That's why it's so important to understand exactly how the Pennsylvania statute of limitations applies to your situation.

The "Certificate of Merit" in Pennsylvania Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

According to 231 Pennsylvania Code Rule 1042.3, a medical malpractice plaintiff (or the plaintiff's attorney) must file a signed "certificate of merit" stating that an "appropriate licensed professional" has looked at the plaintiff's claim and believes there is a "reasonable probability" that the defendant health care provider's conduct "fell outside acceptable professional standards" and caused the plaintiff's claimed harm.

This certificate must be filed along with the initial complaint (the document that lays out the plaintiff's allegations and gets the lawsuit started), or within 60 days after the filing of the complaint.

The "appropriate licensed professional" consulted for the certificate does not need to be the same medical expert who will testify on behalf of the plaintiff at trial. But the expert must have "sufficient education, training, knowledge and experience" to testify credibly and competently on the defendant health care provider's failure to treat the plaintiff in line with the acceptable medical standard of care.

To get an idea of what a certificate of merit might look like, see the form provided in 231 Pennsylvania Code Rule 1042.10.)

No Medical Malpractice Damages Cap in Pennsylvania

A number of states have legislated a "cap" on the amount of compensation a plaintiff can receive in a medical malpractice case. The controversial impact of laws like this is that, even where a plaintiff establishes the defendant's liability for malpractice, there is a limit on the actual amount of damages the jury can award, regardless of the extent of the plaintiff's specific losses.

There is currently no cap on economic or non-economic medical malpractice damages in Pennsylvania (including on compensation for things like pain and suffering), so an injured patient is free to recover for all financial losses that can be attributed to the defendant's malpractice. (Note: Pennsylvania does cap punitive damages, but those are rarely awarded in medical malpractice cases.)

This article provides a brief summary of some of the Pennsylvania laws that any medical malpractice plaintiff needs to have in mind. If you've got questions about how the state's laws will affect your potential situation, an experienced Pennsylvania medical malpractice attorney will have the answers.

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