Understanding the Certificate of Merit – The First Step to Proving Medical Malpractice


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Every year, millions of Americans are negatively affected by medical malpractice and nearly half a million die as a result. With those statistics, chances are good that you or a loved one will have to deal with the consequences of medical malpractice at some point, so it’s important that you know what to expect should it happen to your family.

Proving that a medical professional has been negligent can be an undertaking, but one that can be worth taking on.

There are several things that must be proven in a medical malpractice lawsuit in Pennsylvania. The first step to complete is filing a “certificate of merit” with the court.

What is a Certificate of Merit?

Every medical malpractice lawsuit in Pennsylvania has to adhere to the rules that have been established to deter the filing of frivolous claims. All lawsuits have to be proven to be meritorious before they will be heard by the court. The first hurdle to doing that is the certificate of merit requirement.

A certificate of merit is a document that the plaintiff’s attorney files that is signed by an “appropriate licensed professional.” In it, the professional declares that he or she has reviewed the medical malpractice claim and that he or she believes that there is a reasonable probability that the defendant provided care that contributed to or caused the plaintiff’s injury.

The certificate of merit can be filed along with the original complaint or within 60 days after the complaint is filed. If it isn’t filed within that timeframe, the case will be dismissed. While regulations allow for the licensed professional who will be signing the certificate of merit to investigate the malpractice claim to determine its validity, no other discovery is allowed until the certificate has been filed.

Who Can Sign the Certificate of Merit?

The “appropriate licensed professional” who signs the certificate of merit doesn’t have to be the expert witness whose testimony will be heard in your case. But the Pennsylvania rule does require that he or she is an expert with “sufficient education, training, knowledge and experience” to competently and reliably testify regarding the defendant’s failure to meet the accepted standard of care in the treatment of the plaintiff.

If your attorney feels that an expert witness’ testimony will not be necessary for you to prevail in the case, the certificate of merit must state that and still be filed.

Some medical malpractice lawsuits proceed under the theory of “vicarious liability,” which means that a defendant healthcare provider is being held liable for something that a medical professional under the defendant’s authority did or did not do. An example of this is when a hospital is sued for the negligence of one of its employees. If your attorney plans to use the vicarious liability theory, it must be stated in the certificate of merit.

After the Certificate of Merit is Filed

Once your attorney has filed the certificate of merit, he or she will begin working on your case. There are several points that have to be proven in a medical malpractice lawsuit:

  • A doctor-patient relationship existed – Your attorney must show that your doctor agreed to diagnose and treat you to prove that the doctor-patient relationship existed. This is typically unchallenged by the opposing counsel.
  • The doctor violated the acceptable standard of care – The standard of care is established by proving what a similarly educated and trained medical professional would have done if in the same circumstances as your doctor. Your attorney has to prove that your doctor violated that standard of care.
  • The violation caused harm or injury – Your attorney has to prove that your doctor’s breach of the standard of care caused your injury or illness.
  • Damages that the injury caused – Damages are the amount of monetary compensation you are entitled to due to the negligence and harm that occurred. The amounts for damages has to be quantifiable and proven by your attorney.

Medical malpractice cases, especially ones involving catastrophic injury or death, are complicated and require attorneys and other experts who have extensive legal and medical knowledge. At Ross Feller Casey, we often handle the toughest medical malpractice cases, and we have an excellent track record of winning large verdicts and settlements for our clients.

If you believe that you or your loved one has suffered a catastrophic injury due to medical malpractice, please contact our office for your free case evaluation. One of our experienced medical malpractice attorneys will guide you on how to proceed.

All our malpractice cases are handled on a contingency basis, so you don’t pay unless a financial recovery is made in your case.

Disclaimer: Ross Feller Casey, LLP provides legal advice only after an attorney-client relationship is formed. Our website is an introduction to the firm and does not create a relationship between our attorneys and clients. An attorney-client relationship is formed only after a written agreement is signed by the client and the firm. Because every case is unique, the description of awards and summary of cases successfully handled are not intended to imply or guarantee that same success in other cases. Ross Feller Casey, LLP represents catastrophically injured persons and their families in injury and wrongful death cases, providing legal representation in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.