August 8, 2019, Trial News | The American Association For Justice

August 8, 2019, Trial News

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Utah’s hurdle to filing medical negligence suits is unconstitutional

Mandy Brown

A unanimous Utah Supreme Court has ruled that sections of the state’s medical negligence law violate the judicial power provision of the Utah constitution. The language in question required medical negligence suits to be dismissed unless a prelitigation panel had issued a certificate of compliance or approved an expert “affidavit of merit.” The court found that this improperly vested the panel “with the power to hear and determine the final disposition of controversies,” an unconstitutional exercise of “core judicial functions.” Attorneys expect this decision to improve court access for medical negligence victims in Utah. 
 

A unanimous Utah Supreme Court has ruled that sections of the state’s medical negligence law violate the judicial power provision of the Utah constitution. The language in question required medical negligence suits to be dismissed unless a prelitigation panel had issued a certificate of compliance indicating its belief that a suit had merit or its acceptance of an expert “affidavit of merit.” The court found that this improperly vested the panel “with the power to hear and determine the final disposition of controversies,” an unconstitutional exercise of “core judicial functions.” (Vega v. Jordan Valley Med. Ctr., LP, 2019 WL 3268822 (Utah July 19, 2019).) Although nonbinding prelitigation panels still are permitted, attorneys expect this decision will improve court access for medical negligence victims in the state.

Before 2010, Utah’s medical negligence law required plaintiffs to present their cases to administrative panels at nonbinding prelitigation hearings. The panels—comprising a doctor, lawyer, and layperson—would issue opinions on the cases, but plaintiffs could still file in court regardless of panel determinations.

In 2010, however, the state amended the law to mandate that medical negligence suits could “not be initiated” without a “certificate of compliance,” which prelitigation panels issue to cases they find have merit. If a panel does not issue a certificate, a plaintiff had to submit to the panel an “affidavit of merit” from a health care provider stating the reasons supporting his or her opinion that there were reasonable grounds to believe the standard of care had been breached and that this breach was the proximate cause of the injury claimed. A panel’s decision to grant a certificate or accept an affidavit of merit is not subject to “judicial or other review or appeal” under the 2010 law, and if plaintiffs do not acquire certificates, then courts are required to dismiss any cases they might file.

In 2014, Yolanda Vega’s husband died from complications during what should have been routine gallbladder surgery. Vega filed a notice of intent to sue her husband’s medical providers and presented her case to a prelitigation panel, which found that her case lacked merit. In response, Vega obtained an affidavit of merit from a doctor affirming his belief that a breach in the standard of care had caused her husband’s death. The doctor stated that the “circumstances surrounding Mr. Vega’s injury are highly suspect” but could not provide details supporting his opinion “due to the inadequacy of the medical records provided” to Vega. The panel found that this affidavit was inadequate and asked Vega to file an amended one.

Vega instead sued the medical providers, and the state trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, citing Vega’s failure to obtain a panel certificate. Vega appealed directly to the Utah Supreme Court, arguing that this requirement is unconstitutional.

The state high court agreed, finding that although the legislature may establish entities that assist with judicial determinations, Article VIII of the state constitution explicitly grants the judiciary the power to “enter final judgments.” By insulating panel determinations from judicial review and denying plaintiffs court access without panel approval, the legislature had unconstitutionally allowed these panels to adjudicate claims. “[J]udicial power cannot be abrogated or eliminated by statute,” the court said, “but that is what the 2010 amendments to the Malpractice Act did by empowering [panels] to make final judgments and dispose of claims unbound from and isolated from a judicial check and supervision of its authority.”

The court declined to find the entire statute unconstitutional but struck the “affidavit of merit” language and remanded so that Vega’s claims can be tried on their merits.

“Requiring victims of medical negligence to acquire affidavits of merit was offensive,” said Salt Lake City attorney Eric Nielson, who represents the plaintiff. “No other negligence victims have to tolerate this layer of bureaucracy—or that additional, significant expense. The affidavit requirement added in 2010 was nothing more than another barrier to justice, and we’re thrilled that the court has unanimously recognized that allowing an agency panel to permanently dismiss cases was unconstitutional.”

“This is the first Utah case I’m aware of attacking the constitutionality of the affidavit of merit provisions,” said Salt Lake City attorney Troy Booher, who argued for the plaintiff before the Utah Supreme Court. “The decision is key for cases like Vega’s that would otherwise fall through the cracks. Everyone agrees something must have gone wrong during her husband’s surgery, but no one can say exactly what happened. You need discovery to determine when and how the negligence occurred, and to have a statute requiring an affidavit explaining that before initiating a lawsuit was a substantial obstacle for her and many others.”

After this ruling, Booher expects that the state will revert to its pre-2010 process of requiring nonbinding prelitigation panel hearings in medical negligence cases.