Washington high court strikes down tort reform measure

December 1, 2009

The Washington Supreme Court has dealt a setback to physicians by finding unconstitutional a tort reform measure aimed at curbing meritless medical liability lawsuits.

The Washington Supreme Court has dealt a setback to physicians by finding unconstitutional a tort reform measure aimed at curbing meritless medical liability lawsuits.

State law required patients to submit a statement from a medical expert certifying the existence of a reasonable basis for allegations when the lawsuit was initially filed.

According to American Medical News (10/12/09), the court unanimously ruled that the statute encroached on the court's ability to set its own procedural rules, violating the separation of powers between the legislature and the judiciary. Justices argued that the measure conflicted with an existing rule barring additional verification of a case.

In a more favorable ruling for physicians, on September 24, 2009, the court also determined that Consumer Protection Act claims could not be included automatically in medical liability cases.

This case arose after a physician prescribed surgery that the patient alleged was unnecessary and from which she developed complications. The patient claimed that the doctor's improper recommendations and the costs of the alleged unnecessary surgery constituted unfair business practices under the state's consumer protection act, entitling her to damages beyond any compensation awarded from her medical liability suit for negligence.

The court ruled that the surgical expenses could not be separated from the medical liability claim and that the state's consumer protection statutes weren't designed to address healthcare decisions and to allow patients to recover damages denied in personal liability actions.