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Minority Tolling Exemption for Medical Malpractice Actions Unconstitutional


A nine-year-old suffered from headaches, nausea, dizziness, weakness in his legs, and double vision. He underwent an MRI, which a radiologist reviewed and found to be normal. The boy's symptoms persisted. When he was 17, the boy underwent another MRI. This time the radiologist who reviewed the image found an Arnold Chiari Type I Malformation, a condition in which brain tissue protrudes into the spinal canal. The radiologist also reviewed the earlier MRI and concluded that the condition had been present to the same extent at that time.

 

The day before his 19th birthday, the teenager filed a medical malpractice action against the radiologist and his practice group. The radiologist asserted that the action was barred by the statute of limitations and subject to the minority tolling exemption, which exempted medical malpractice actions from the general rule that allowed tolling of the statute of limitations for a cause of action brought by a minor until the minor reached the age of majority. The Benton County Superior Court dismissed the complaint on limitations grounds. The teenager appealed challenging the constitutionality of the minority tolling exemption.

 

The Supreme Court of Washington reversed. The court held that the minority tolling exemption violated the Washington constitution's prohibition against special privileges and immunities. The court held that the minority tolling exemption was subject to intermediate scrutiny, meaning that if the grounds for the statute were reasonable it would not violate the Washington constitution. The court found that the defendants’ asserted grounds were not reasonable including that the legislature might have believed that medical malpractice claims brought by nondisabled minors may have been numerous enough to materially affect medical malpractice insurance rates and that the minority tolling exemption served the important purpose of limiting stale medical malpractice claims.

 

The challenge to the minority tolling exemption was governed by a two-part test: first, the court asked whether the challenged law grants a privilege or immunity, and if so, the court then asked whether there is a reasonable ground for granting that privilege or immunity. The prohibition against special privileges or immunities addressed benefits implicating fundamental rights of state citizenship. Where a cause of action derived from the common law, the ability to pursue it was a privilege of state citizenship. The court reasoned that medical malpractice claims were fundamentally negligence claims, rooted in the common law tradition, therefore, the ability to pursue medical malpractice claims was a privilege of state citizenship. The statute granted immunity and consequently burdened a minor's privilege to pursue a medical malpractice action. Thus, the minority tolling exemption violated Washington’s constitutional prohibition against special privileges and immunities unless there was reasonable ground for granting immunity.

 

In reviewing a challenge to a statute as violative of the Washington constitution's prohibition against special privileges and immunities, the court applied intermediate scrutiny to laws that burden both an important right and a semi-suspect class not accountable for its status. The court held that the minority tolling exemption burdened an important right, namely, the privilege of minors, accorded to all other citizens, to pursue a common law action for medical malpractice. The court also held that the minority tolling exemption had the potential to burden a particularly vulnerable population not accountable for its status, such as children in the foster care system, children whose parents were themselves minors, and children whose parents were simply unconcerned.

 

Under the test for determining whether there is a reasonable ground for a statute conferring a privilege or immunity on a distinct class of persons, the court held that it would not hypothesize facts to justify a legislative distinction. Therefore, the defendants' speculative assertion that the legislature might have believed that medical malpractice claims brought by nondisabled minors may have been numerous enough to materially affect medical malpractice insurance rates was not a reasonable ground for enacting the minority tolling exemption.

 

The court also held that the defendants' assertion that the statute served the important purpose of limiting stale medical malpractice claims was not a reasonable ground for granting medical defendants immunity from suit for medical negligence committed while a patient was a minor. The court found that the minority tolling exemption was not enacted for the purpose of addressing stale claims generally. The court reasoned that if the minority tolling exemption was to be justified on the basis that it was a substantial wrong to permit even one stale medical malpractice claim to proceed, then there was no rational explanation for the legislature's failure to eliminate tolling for other incompetent plaintiffs. Thus, the minority tolling exemption violated the prohibition against special privileges and immunities.

 

The Supreme Court of Washington reversed the trial court’s order dismissing the plaintiff’s claim.

 

See: Schroeder v. Weighall, 2014 WL 172665 (Wash., January 16, 2014) (not designated for publication).

 

 

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