Medical Malpractice Victim Helps Uphold Constitutional Rights of Patients
side note: This is a significant court decision against the requirement of certificates of merit prior to filing a court claim.
The Washington State Supreme Court overturned a law that required victims of medical malpractice to submit a certificate of merit from a medical expert in the same field as each health care defendant named in a lawsuit. The certificate requirement, imposed on patients by the Washington State Legislature in 2006, significantly limited patients’ access to the courts, including a Washington woman whose ovarian cancer went undiagnosed for years.
In 2007, Perey Law Group filed suit against the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center on behalf of Kimmie Putman, claiming her doctors’ failure to promptly diagnose her ovarian cancer eliminated her opportunity for early treatment and she now only has a 40 percent likelihood of surviving the next five years.
When Putman filed her lawsuit, the trial court dismissed a portion of the claim because Putman did not file a certificate of merit for a clinic employee who was not a named defendant in her lawsuit.
Putman filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, which led to the ruling.
In a majority opinion, the Court ruled that the certificate of merit requirement violates the Washington constitution on two bases – it violates separation of powers between the legislature and judiciary branches and secondly, it blocks medical malpractice victims from access to the courts.
“The certificate of merit requirement essentially asked victims to present evidence before a case even reached the discovery process,” said Ron Perey, the attorney representing Putman. “The requirement put a burden on victims and elevated doctors and hospitals above the law, making them untouchable to many injured patients.”
Under the challenged statute, RCW 7.70.150, injured patients had to obtain a certificate of merit from a medical expert in the same field as each defendant health care provider, stating there is a reasonable probability that the defendant was negligent in providing health care to the patient.
In the court’s decision it notes, “Requiring medical malpractice plaintiffs to submit a certificate prior to discovery hinders their right of access to courts. Through the discovery process, plaintiffs uncover the evidence necessary to pursue their claims. Obtaining the evidence necessary to obtain a certificate of merit may not be possible prior to discovery, when health care workers can be interviewed and procedural manuals reviewed.”
The majority then reasoned, “It is the duty of the courts to administer justice by protecting the legal rights and enforcing the legal obligations of the people. Accordingly, we must strike down this law.”
“This is a stunning victory for Ms. Putman and the other injured patients and their families for whom we’ve long advocated,” said Perey. “Injured patients now have a level playing field in lawsuits against doctors, hospitals and insurers which have limitless funds to defend lawsuits.”
The court rejected various legal arguments made by the Wenatchee Valley Medical Clinic, as well as the insurance and health care industry’s belief that a growing number of allegedly frivolous claims necessitate premium increases. In reality, substantial historical and statistical research by objective sources proves this so-called “medical malpractice crisis” is a myth fueled by those special interest groups.
In crafting the certificate of merit requirement, the Washington Legislature singled out doctors and hospitals for special legal treatment, changing hundreds of years of precedent. The certificate of merit requirement applied solely to health care providers – not to product manufacturers, barbers, architects, pharmaceutical companies, lawyers, airline pilots, politicians, plumbers, electricians, truck drivers, automobile operators, but only to cases against perpetrators of injury to patients through negligent medical care.
Perey noted there is irrefutable medical evidence that more than 100,000 patients die each year as a result of hospital and/or medical errors; and less than one percent of all patients injured by medical negligence ever bring a claim.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Putnam case puts an end to unjust special treatment for doctors and hospitals, and sets the law right so that all parties, whether plaintiff or defendant, are equal before the Washington State courts.