Washington Supreme Court Finds Part Of Washington's Medical Malpractice Law Unconstitutional

MedicalMalpracticeLawyers.com reports on the January 16, 2014 decision of the Washington State Supreme Court that invalidates part of Washington's medical malpractice law as it applies to medical malpractice claims of minors.

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It is important for the courts to protect children from harm when laws are passed to solely benefit the financial interest of the privileged class of health care providers

Baltimore, Maryland (PRWEB) January 20, 2014

On January 16, 2014, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington ("Washington Supreme Court") held that a Washington statute that eliminates tolling of the statute of limitations for minors in the context of medical malpractice claims is unconstitutional: "We hold that RCW 4.16.190(2) violates article I, section 12 of the Washington State Constitution and we therefore reverse the trial court's summary judgment order dismissing Schroeder's medical malpractice action."

RCW 4.16.190 ("Statute tolled by personal disability.") provides in subsection (1) that for minors under the age of 18, "the time of such disability shall not be a part of the time limited for the commencement of action." However, subsection (2) states, "Subsection (1) of this section with respect to a person under the age of eighteen years does not apply to the time limited for the commencement of an action under RCW 4.16.350."

RCW 4.16.350 ("Hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, etc.") addresses medical malpractice claims and requires that such claims "shall be commenced within three years of the act or omission alleged to have caused the injury or condition, or one year of the time the patient or his or her representative discovered or reasonably should have discovered that the injury or condition was caused by said act or omission, whichever period expires later, except that in no event shall an action be commenced more than eight years after said act or omission." This section further provides, "For purposes of this section, notwithstanding RCW 4.16.190, the knowledge of a custodial parent or guardian shall be imputed to a person under the age of eighteen years, and such imputed knowledge shall operate to bar the claim of such minor to the same extent that the claim of an adult would be barred under this section. Any action not commenced in accordance with this section shall be barred."

In the case the Washington Supreme Court was deciding, the underlying medical malpractice claim arose when the plaintiff was a minor but the medical malpractice lawsuit was not timely filed within the period set forth in RCW 4.16.190(2).

The Washington Supreme Court noted that article I, section 12 of the Washington Constitution provides that "[n]o law shall be passed granting to any citizen, class of citizens, or corporation other than municipal, privileges or immunities which upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens, or corporations."

In determining if a statute violates article I, section 12, the Washington Supreme Court stated that the first issue is whether a challenged law grants a "privilege" or "immunity" for purposes of Washington's state constitution, and if so, then the next issue becomes whether there is a "reasonable ground" for granting that privilege or immunity.

The Washington Supreme Court held that because RCW 4.16.190(2) limits the ability of certain plaintiffs -- those whose injuries occurred during childhood -- to bring medical malpractice claims, it therefore grants an immunity (and burdens a privilege) triggering the reasonable ground test under article I, section 12. The reasonable ground test involves the court scrutinizing the legislative distinction to determine whether it in fact serves the legislature's stated goal.

The Washington Supreme Court noted that RCW 4.16.190(2) has the potential to burden a particularly vulnerable population not accountable for its status -- it places a disproportionate burden on the child whose parent or guardian lacks the knowledge or incentive to pursue a claim on his or her behalf.

The Washington Supreme Court held that "even if minors generally do not constitute a semi suspect class under article I, section 12, the group of minors most likely to be adversely affected by RCW 4.16.190(2) may well constitute the type of discrete and insular minority whose interests are a central concern in our state equal protection cases ... we find that RCW 4.16.190(2) violates article I, section 12 of the Washington Constitution. We therefore reverse the trial court's order dismissing Schroeder's claim."

Source: Schroeder v. Weighall, et al., No. 87207-4

MedicalMalpracticeLawyers.com commends the Washington Supreme Court's decision to protect minors injured as a result of medical malpractice in Washington State: "It is important for the courts to protect children from harm when laws are passed to solely benefit the financial interest of the privileged class of health care providers."

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