Washington Supreme Court Overturns Medical Liability Statute of Repose

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled late last year that a statute barring medical liability lawsuits filed more than eight years after the date of injury — even if the patient is unable to determine the cause of their injury within that time frame — violates the state’s constitution.

The case at hand, Bennett v. United States of America, involves plaintiff Bette Bennett, the spouse of a U.S. Navy service member, who alleges she sustained a traumatic brain injury due to negligence during recovery from a sinus surgery at Bremerton Naval Hospital in May 2009.

Bennett alleges she experienced substantial nose bleeding post-surgery, necessitating transport to the Bremerton Naval Hospital emergency room. The on-call physician examined her, removed nasal splints and inserted packing. During this process, a disturbing noise and acute pain caused Bennett to lose consciousness. She was taken to the operating room to control the nosebleed and was later discharged. Subsequently, Bennett developed a range of symptoms that include migraines, malaise, light sensitivity and neurocognitive impairment, prompting consultations with various specialists who were unable to diagnose her condition.

A neuropsychologist concluded in 2017 that Bennett’s symptoms aligned with traumatic brain injury, a diagnosis confirmed three months later by a specialist. Bennett initiated an administrative tort claim with the U.S. Department of the Navy in 2018, following federal procedures. After the claim was denied, she filed a medical malpractice complaint within the six-month statutory window, in accordance with the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), against the United States in the District Court for the Western District of Washington.

The United States sought dismissal, citing Washington State’s eight-year statute of repose, arguing that Bennett’s cause of action was extinguished prior to her traumatic brain injury diagnosis. Bennett contended that the statute of repose should not apply, asserting preemption by the FTCA and a violation of the Washington Constitution. The district court rejected the dismissal motion, asserting preemption, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the FTCA incorporates state statutes of repose. The district court then asked the Washington State Supreme Court to assess the constitutionality of the eight-year statute of repose under the state constitution and determine whether the action should be dismissed or proceed to outcome.

In a 7-2 opinion, the Washington State Supreme Court determined the eight-year statute of repose limits specific plaintiffs from bringing medical malpractice claims and grants immunity to certain defendants from defined common law causes of action, violating the privileges and immunities clause of the Washington State Constitution, article I, section 12, guaranteeing “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.”

Bennett v. United States is scheduled to proceed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

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