Laboratory tests indicated a man had elevated liver enzymes. His doctor did nothing in response to these laboratory tests. The man stopped being treated by the doctor. Over ten years after the laboratory tests, the man complained of stomach pain. He was diagnosed with a liver lesion and hepatitis C.
The man and his wife filed a medical malpractice claim against the doctor and his practice. They alleged that the doctor had failed to properly assess, evaluate and respond to abnormal laboratory results including, but not limited to, very high liver enzymes. The man died while the case was pending.
The wife sought a declaratory judgment that the statute of repose for medical claims, as applied to her husband, violated the Ohio constitution. The statute of repose for medical claims requires a person to file a medical claim no later than four years after the alleged act of malpractice occurs or the claim will be barred. Article I, Section 16, of the Ohio Constitution guarantees that “[a]ll courts shall be open, and every person, for an injury done him in his land, goods, person, or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law, and shall have justice administered without denial or delay.”
The district court held that the statute of repose for medical claims as applied to the claims of the widow at bar violated Article I, Section 16, of the Ohio Constitution, known as the “right to remedy” provision. The court of appeals affirmed reasoning that the statute of repose barred the wife’s medical malpractice claim after it had already vested, but before she or the decedent knew or reasonably could have known about the claim.
The Supreme Court of Ohio reversed the lower courts’ decisions. The court held that the statute of repose did not bar a vested cause of action. The court overruled an earlier decision reasoning that it was wrongly decided because the court failed to determine when a medical negligence claim vests.
The right-to-remedy provision applies only to existing, vested rights. A medical negligence claim vests when a patient discovers or in the exercise of reasonable care and diligence should have discovered the resulting injury. The legislature determines what injuries are recognized and what remedies are available, for example, by placing a time limit after which an injury is no longer a legal injury. By passing the statute of repose for medical claims, the legislature determined that medical negligence claims can only vest within four years of the breach of duty of care. If a statute takes away a claim before it accrues, the claim never vests, and the statute of repose does not violate the “right to remedy” provision of the Ohio Constitution.
See: Ruther v. Kaiser, 2012 WL 6553462, 2012 -Ohio- 5686 (Ohio, December 6, 2012) (not designated for publication).