A Pennsylvania Superior Court decision issued on July 19, 2017, has serious ramifications on the appropriate venue for medical professional liability suits. The Superior Court ruled that the transmittal and reading of an echocardiogram was sufficient for the rendering of health care services.
Under Pennsylvania law, a medical liability action can only be brought against a health care provider in the county where the cause of action occurred. A medical professional liability suit can thus only be initiated in the county where the alleged negligent healthcare services were rendered. If there are multiple defendants, venue is appropriate in any county in which at least one of the defendants can be sued.
In Wentzel v. Cammarano, the mother of a minor patient, Ms. Christina Wentzel, brought a professional liability suit against Dominic Cammarano, III, DO, and several Reading facilities (i.e. Reading Hospital), and Tenet Healthsystem St. Christopher's Hospital, Philadelphia. Ms. Wentzel obtained prenatal care with Dr. Cammarano and others within the Reading system. Due to complications during her pregnancy, Ms. Wentzel was admitted to Reading Hospital for an emergency Cesarean section surgery.
Shortly after birth, Ms. Wentzel's child experienced respiratory distress. An echocardiogram was performed on the child by Reading Hospital and subsequently sent to St. Christopher's Hospital. A physician at St. Christopher's reviewed the report on the evening of Sept. 12, 2013. The report indicated pulmonary hypertension and tricuspid valve insufficiency requiring immediate treatment. The report was sent back with recommendations to Reading Hospital the following evening on Sept. 13, 2013. The child was then transferred to St. Christopher's for treatment on Sept. 14, 2013. Following subsequent transfers of the child between Reading and St. Christopher's, a CT scan revealed that the child had a rib fracture.
Ms. Wentzel, on behalf of her infant son, filed a complaint in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas alleging medical professional liability by Dr. Cammarano, Reading Hospital, and St. Christopher's Hospital. Ms. Wentzel claimed that the delay of St. Christopher's in timely transmitting the report and recommendations back to Reading Hospital constituted professional negligence as it denied her son the immediate care he required. Furthermore, Ms. Wentzel alleged that the cause of action arose in Philadelphia as a result of the echocardiogram report interpreted by St. Christopher's Hospital. She did not bring a claim against St. Christopher's for the care her child received while admitted there. Ms. Wentzel alleged that the rib fracture could have occurred at either Reading or St. Christopher's Hospital.
Reading Hospital filed a preliminary objection to Ms. Wentzel's complaint on the grounds of improper venue. Reading argued that Berks County, not Philadelphia County, was the proper venue since Ms. Wentzel did not assert any allegations for professional negligence arising from the care of her son while admitted at St. Christopher's.
The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas sustained Reading Hospital's preliminary objection and transferred the case to Berks County holding that the transmittal of the echocardiogram did not rise to the level of rendering health services. Ms. Wentzel subsequently appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
PAMED filed an amicus brief in support of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas' decision, which reinforced the scope of Pennsylvania's venue rules in medical liability cases. In this brief, PAMED reaffirmed the accepted standard that the county where the relevant healthcare services are rendered is the appropriate venue for a medical liability suit, regardless of the physician's physical location.
Holding that St. Christopher's involvement in the case extended beyond the mere offer of advice from a remote location, the Superior Court ruled that venue in Philadelphia County was appropriate. The Court thus vacated the decision of the trial court and remanded for proceedings consistent with the Superior Court's ruling.
The physician at St. Christopher's, the Superior Court opined, expected to direct the child's course of care and commenced in that role by reviewing and making recommendations based upon the report. The Superior Court further theorized that all claims of negligence in the instant case were based on the delay in the performance at St. Christopher's. St. Christopher's, the Court emphasized, had every intention of treating the child in Philadelphia, and it was St. Christopher's negligent delay in effecting the treatment plan that represented a failure to provide the child with timely care.
The Superior Court's decision in Wentzel v. Cammarano could possibly expand the availability of venues in Pennsylvania medical liability suits. PAMED will continue to follow any developments regarding this case and update members accordingly.