July 2, 2010
Limit on Medical Malpractice Yields to Separation of Powers in Washington State
The Washington Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a key provision of the state's efforts to control medical malpractice suits violated state constitutional separation-of-powers principles. (Thanks to Carla Tachau Lawrence for the heads-up. We previously posted on the court's ruling that another restriction on state medical malpractice suits, the "certificate of merit" requirement, violated the Washington Constitution's "open courts" provision.)
Yesterday's decision, Waples v. Yi (dissent here), involved Washington State's requirement that plaintiffs give health care providers 90 days' notice of their intention to file a medical malpractice suit. The Washington Supreme Court ruled that the requirement (set by the legislature) ran up against a state court rule (set by the judiciary), and that the requirement must give way. The requirement stated that no medical malpractice suit may be commenced without the 90 days' notice; the court rule states that "a civil action is commenced by service of copy of a summons together with a copy of a complaint . . . ." The court explained the conflict:
Requiring notice adds an additional step for commencing a suit to those required by [the court rules]. And, failure to provide the notice required by [the notice requirement] results in a lawsuit's dismissal, as it did here, even where the complaint was properly filed and served pursuant to the [court rules].
The conflict . . . cannot be harmonized and both cannot be given effect. If a statute and a court rule cannot be harmonized, the court rule will generally prevail in procedural matters and the statute in substantive matters. "Substantive law 'creates, defines, and regulates primary rights,' while procedures involve the 'operations of the courts by which substantive law, rights, and remedies are effectuated.'" [The notice requirement] involves procedural law and will not prevail over [the court rule].
Op. at 10-11 (citations omitted).
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