HARRISBURG - The number of malpractice lawsuits filed against doctors and hospitals in Pennsylvania dropped last year for the sixth year in a row.

The total was 1,491, according to a report last week by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts - about half the peak of 2,904 in 2002.

Court officials reported that 163 cases last year had reached a jury, and that 133 verdicts - 82 percent - had favored the defense.

The decline has followed legal changes that the state made to weed out frivolous cases. Among the rules that took effect in 2002 is a requirement that plaintiffs get another doctor in the same field to sign off on the claims. Another requires malpractice claims to be filed in the county where the alleged malpractice occurred, preventing lawyers from filing in counties where they believe juries will be more sympathetic.

Attorneys also attributed the drop to an increase in the use of private mediators.

Heath-care industry advocates said the data vindicated their complaints.

"There were too many frivolous lawsuits finding their way into our legal system and tying up resources," said Chuck Moran, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Medical Society.

Ralph Schmeltz, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, called the decline encouraging but said further changes were needed.

"We still see a significant problem with things like defensive medicine," he said. "Physicians are very concerned with getting sued."

He also said the drop in filings had not reduced liability premiums in Pennsylvania.