Bucking tradition, a Lackawanna County, Pa. judge has ruled against a doctor who sought to keep the details of a medical malpractice settlement under wraps, saying that taxpayers have a right to know because they are picking up part of the tab.
Common Pleas Judge Terrance R. Nealon last week refused to seal the case of an obstetrician-gynecologist sued for failing to diagnose a Lackawanna County woman who later died.
Lucille M. Korczakowski, 47, died of an ovarian cyst in 1999 that went undetected for at least three years. Her husband, James, sued her doctor, Jung Jang Hwan of Clarks Green, 15 miles north of Scranton.
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 then asked to seal the terms of the settlement, as has been customary in medical malpractice cases for the last 20 years.
Nealon refused, saying that because 70 percent of the settlement in Korczakowski’s death is being paid from the MCare fund — the state-run insurance fund that covers catastrophic malpractice claims — the terms can’t be allowed to remain secret.
“Since the funds which will be used to pay the majority of the plaintiff’s settlement with Dr. Hwan are derived from public taxes or surcharges, any documents relating to disbursement of those settlement proceeds are clearly public records,” Nealon wrote.
Clifford Rieders, former head of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association, said that other judges around Pennsylvania will likely follow Nealon’s lead.
“He basically said: ‘You doctors wanted public money — the public’s right to know comes with that.’ I would say it is groundbreaking by that standard,’ Rieders said.
The Pennsylvania Medical Society, a lobbying group for doctors, declined comment.
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