This past week, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that yet another aspect of Washington’s recent medical malpractice reform laws is unconstitutional. In the case of Schroeder v. Weighall, the Court on Thursday ruled that minors who are plaintiffs in medical negligence cases are entitled to “toll” the statute of limitations applicable to their claim (a sort of “time out” from the statute of limitations), until they reach the age of majority. At issue in the case was a special provision of Washington law which held that minors with medical malpractice claims were not entitled to tolling during their childhood. This law meant that a child with a claim for medical negligence had to bring the case within the ordinary statute of limitations, even though he or she was not an adult. Minors with any other type of tort claim were entitled to toll the statute of limitations until they became adults, however. No more.
As the Court explained, the challenged provision (RCW 4.16.190(2)) violated the state constitution’s “privileges and immunities” clause, because it treated minors with medical negligence claims different than minors with other types of claims. The stated reason for treating these two classes of plaintiffs differently was not plausible or constitutionally permissible, according to a majority of the Court’s justices.
The Schroeder Court’s opinion (which split the Court 7-2) reflects an ongoing trend in Washington’s Supreme Court to invalidate subject matter-specific barriers to lawsuits. In recent years, the Court has gradually invalidated significant aspects of a package of legislative changes that were meant to make medical malpractice cases less frequent and medical malpractice insurance less expensive. Since these changes were enacted, however, continued legal challenges have unwound several of these special laws. For instance, no longer are medical malpractice plaintiffs required to file suits with “certificates of merit” from a physician or other expert witness, or follow specific pre-suit notice requirements with rigid timelines that apply only to medical malpractice cases. The Schroeder decision dismantles yet another of these laws, and eliminates another basis on which medical malpractice claims in Washington were kept out of court.
Both prospective claimants and healthcare providers should note this change in the law, as an entire class of claims has just received new life.