The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the long-awaited case of Passarello v. Grumbine. The decision, announced February 7, 2014, will effectuate an important change in the law of medical liability in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and may influence other states as well.
The Passarellos were represented in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by Clifford A. Rieders, Esquire, of Rieders, Travis, Dohrmann, Mowrey, Humphrey & Waters, with Pam Shipman, Esquire, on the brief. Rieders argued the case on behalf of the Plaintiffs, which was frequently rebroadcast on PCN Live.
The majority of the Justices determined that the liability of physicians for damages in medical malpractice cases should be determined by a reasonable physician in the same position as the doctor against whom recovery is sought. Patients will no longer have to face the argument by the medical community that the health care provider is entitled to a “safe harbor” based upon an “error in judgment.” It has been the argument of the medical community, rejected by Pennsylvania’s intermediate appellate court, the Superior Court, that doctors can escape liability for negligence where they have committed an “error in judgment.”
The Court, in its trailblazing decision, decided that the “error in judgment” defense is too subjective. The question in deciding whether a doctor has provided negligence care, wrote the Court, is not a doctor’s intent or state of mind but rather the doctor has met an objective standard of care governing all doctors in the same field or subspecialty.
The Justices of the Court disapproved the argument made by the lawyers for the physician in Passarello that the doctor should get a “break” because she tried her best and did not intend to hurt anyone. In any case for negligence, whether it be a driver of a car or a professional, the issue is always whether reasonable care was exercised as measured against individuals in the same position as the person who was sued.
Not only does the Passarello decision reinforce the common law that has existed for hundreds of years, but perhaps just as importantly it decisively eliminates from the courtroom personalities, state of mind, intention, willfulness, or other factors that have no place in the determination of liability under the negligence law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Court’s extremely thorough opinion examined standard jury instructions, the law in other states, and the history of medical liability claims.
Rieders stated: “The Passarello decision is an important milestone in enhancing patient safety. With proper responsibility for negligent acts, doctors and hospitals will have incentive to render safer care.”