Currently, in Pennsylvania, there is no exact definition of the term “cause of death.” Lawmakers and medical professionals have come to a common understanding of what is meant by “cause of death.” Typically, this refers to what is written on the death certificate. However, recently courts have found the term to be broad and ambiguous.
The ambiguity of the term has led to delays in medical malpractice cases, as well as the non-filing of medical malpractice cases. If a loved one has been the victim of a medical malpractice incident that resulted in death, there is only a limited time to file a claim against the responsible party. An experienced malpractice trial attorney at The Weitz Law Firm in Philadelphia can help you understand your rights.
The Superior Court of Pennsylvania stated in a ruling that the term “cause of death” is vague and that it should be construed to mean “conduct the plaintiff alleges led to the decedent’s death.” If the change is made, plaintiffs would be able to file cases after the two-year statute of limitations has passed.
Those within the healthcare field are not happy with the potential change. The case will be heard by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Numerous healthcare groups have filed amici briefs with the court stating that the superior court erred in their opinion when they found that the term “cause of death” was ambiguous and undefined by the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Act.
The Superior Court pointed out that the term “cause of death” is not defined in MCARE, and it is unclear whether it means “immediate”, the medical cause of death, such as is customarily listed on the decedent’s death certificate or includes conduct leading to the decedent’s death but that is not the direct, medical cause of death.
Both interpretations were plausible, according to the Court, and therefore, the term is ambiguous. It used the Statutory Construction Act to try to figure out what the legislature’s objective was when the law was passed.
Further, the court goes on to say that the fact that the exemption was included in MCARE, according to the Superior Court, recognizes that wrongful death and survival lawsuits may involve scenarios where the patient’s interest in fair recompense exceeds the interest in minimizing medical malpractice insurance costs.
The case will soon be heard by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. If the Court upholds the lower court’s opinion in that the term is ambiguous and should be given a new, more precise definition, then that will be that law as it stands. However, this could take over a year or more.
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