Thursday, January 16, 2014
In its opinion today in Schroeder v. Weighall, the Washington Supreme Court held a medical malpractice statute of limitations violated the state constitution's equality provisions.
The statute at issue, RCW 4.16.190, tolls the statute of limitations during the time a person suffers from a disability, including being a minor. However, subsection (2) of the statute is an exemption only for persons under the age of 18 and only with respect to actions under RCW 4.16.350, the statute governing claims for medical malpractice.
The court found the exemption provision unconstitutional under Washington Constitution Art. 1 §12 :
No 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.
While the court noted that this provision could be "substantially similar" to the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, it was also different and more protective and paid special attention to "undue political influence" that was "exercised by a privileged few."
The court applied a two prong test, first looking at whether there was a "privilege or immunity," at stake, easily concluding that the benefit in the statutory exemption was "limited liability-an immunity from suits pursued by certain plaintiffs." The court quickly turned to the mirror image of this benefit, concluding that the right to sue for what is essentially common law negligence was within these definitions.
The court then turned to the second prong of the test, considering whether there is a "reasonable ground" for "limiting medical malpractice defendants' liability to patients injured during minority," and noting that "reasonableness" under the state constitution was more rigorous that rational basis. The court carefully looked at the purported interests of the statute, and noted an inconsistency:
If the statute is to be justified on the basis that it will greatly reduce medical malpractice claims, it cannot also be justified on the ground that it will not prevent very many plaintiffs from having their day in court. If it is to be justified on the basis that it is a substantial wrong to permit even one stale medical malpractice claim to proceed, then there can be no rational explanation for the legislature's failure to eliminate tolling for other incompetent plaintiffs.
Again, however, the court indulged in a mirror image discussion, looking at the statutory scheme's affect on a "particularly vulnerable population not accountable for its status. While children are not a suspect or even semi-suspect class, the court did note that "the group of minors most likely to be adversely affected" by the statutory exemption are those "whose parent or guardian lacks the knowledge or incentive to pursue a claim on his or her behalf" or who are in state care.
While 7 of the 9 justices of the court assented to this opinion, authored by Justice Gordon McCloud, there was a dissenting opinion by Justice James M. Johnson, joined by Justice Susan Owens, arguing that the most deferential standard of scrutiny should apply and accepting the claims of legislative interest in reducing claims of medical malpractice.
The Washington Supreme Court's majority opinion is a well-reasoned example of the vibrancy of state constitutional equality provisions, including a somewhat unusual application to a statute of limitations provision.