December 16, 2014, PNLR E-newsletter | The American Association For Justice Archive

December 16, 2014, PNLR E-newsletter

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Wyoming Supreme Court strikes down limitations period for minors’ med-mal claims

Lynne Stern Feiges

The Wyoming Supreme Court held that two state laws restricting the period in which minors may bring medical malpractice claims violate the state constitution’s open courts provision. (J.K. v. Montes, 2014 WL 6065940 (Wyo. Nov. 14, 2014).)

In 2007, physician Leigh Montes performed an appendectomy on J.K., then 12. After the procedure, J.K. developed complications and required further surgery and treatment at an out-of-state medical facility. In 2012, J.K.’s parents sued Montes for medical malpractice on J.K.’s behalf. The defendant moved to dismiss, asserting that the plaintiff’s claim was time-barred under Wyo. Stat. Ann §1-3-107(a)(ii), which establishes a two-year limitations period for minors’ medical negligence claims. Under the statute, the limitations period accrues by a minor’s eighth birthday or within two years of the alleged act, error, or omission, whichever period is greater. The district court granted the motion.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the statute violated Article 1, Section 8 of the Wyoming Constitution, which mandates: “All courts shall be open and every person for an injury done to person, reputation, or property shall have justice administered without sale, denial, or delay.” The defendant asserted that the statute did not restrict the plaintiff’s access to courts because her claim could have been brought by a guardian or next friend.

The state high court agreed with J.K.. Citing case law, the court noted that to establish an open courts violation, a plaintiff must show that the law restricts a well-recognized common law cause of action and prove that the restriction is unreasonable or arbitrary when balanced against the statute’s purpose. Finding that Wyoming has long recognized a minor’s cause of action for common law medical malpractice, the court also found that the statute at issue here—as well as Wyo. Stat. Ann. §1-3-114, which establishes a three-year limitations period for minors’ damages claims, except health care negligence claims—restrict a minor’s access to the courts by depriving minors of the opportunity to pursue their causes of action if their parents or guardians fail to timely act on those claims. Moreover, the court said, under state law, a minor in such a position cannot sue his or her parents for failing to bring the claims.

Turning to the second part of the open courts test, the court acknowledged the widely accepted notion that §1-3-107 was enacted to address a perceived medical malpractice insurance crisis. Such enactments have been challenged in other jurisdictions, the court said, adding that results of those constitutional challenges have been varied. The court adopted the reasoning of Sax v. Votteler (648 S.W.2d 661 (Tex. 1983)), in which the Texas Supreme Court held that a state law removing the tolling period for minors’ medical malpractice claims violated that state constitution’s due process guarantee as set forth in its open courts provision. The court here reasoned that it cannot be assumed that parents and guardians will protect the rights of minor children, whose consequent restriction from seeking judicial redress would be severe and unreasonable.

The court thus held that both §1-3-107 and §1-3-114 were unconstitutional and that the district court improperly granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

The plaintiff’s cocounsel, Robert Bundy of Riverton, Wyo., said the state high court’s decision was inevitable. “The court did a good job of reviewing the law,” Bundy said, noting that allowing the statute of limitations to run during a claimant’s minority is “patently unfair” and hurts our society’s “most vulnerable.”

The case has been remanded to the district court.