|News Media Update||PENNSYLVANIA||Secret Courts|
Malpractice settlement cannot be kept secret
- Taxpayers have a right to know details of a malpractice settlement, a Pennsylvania judge ruled.
Oct. 5, 2004 — The settlement in a malpractice suit against a Pennsylvania doctor must be made public because taxpayer money is being used for the $725,000 payment, a Lackawanna County judge ruled last week.
“Since the funds which will be used to pay the majority of the plaintiff’s settlement . . . are derived from the public taxes or surcharges, any documents relating to disbursement of those settlement proceeds are clearly public records,” Judge Terrance Nealon wrote.
“This is huge. The judge has correctly said it’s time to rip the veil of secrecy off this issue,” Dan Fee, spokesman for Pennsylvania Citizens for Fairness, a consumer group that sides with lawyers on malpractice issues, told The (Allentown) Morning Call.
If the judge had allowed the settlement to be sealed, no one would know that a half-million dollars of public money is being spent on a doctor’s mistake, Fee told the paper.
“You doctors wanted public money — the public’s right to know comes with that. I would say it is groundbreaking by that standard,” Clifford Rieders, former head of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association told the Associated Press.
”People couldn’t get valid claims resolved without agreeing to the extortion of silence,” he said. ”You can’t talk about the case. You can’t e-mail about it. Doctors just don’t want their dirty laundry aired in public,” Rieders told The Morning Call .
The case began in 1999 when Lucille M. Korczakowski, 47, died of an ovarian cyst that went undetected for at least three years. Her husband, James, sued her doctor, Dr. Jung Jang Hwan.
The doctor’s insurance company, the Pennsylvania Medical Society Liability Insurance Co., offered to settle the case for $725,000 after court-ordered mediation. The judge was asked to seal the terms of the settlement, as has been customary in medical malpractice cases for the last 20 years.
Judge Nealon ruled that the settlement of this, and possibly any, medical malpractice case in Pennsylvania is a matter of public interest because the medical community has made a big issue over the past few years out of rising malpractice insurance premiums.
The medical community, claiming doctors have fled the state in large numbers because of rising premiums and frivolous malpractice lawsuits, demanded the state legislature enact court reforms, The Morning Call reported.
(Korczakowski v. Hwan) — KC
© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press