Washington justices make it easier to file med-mal suits

Chris Rizo Sep. 17, 2009, 10:44pm

OLYMPIA, Wash. - The Washington Supreme Court today overturned a state law that requires an allegedly injured patient to get a certificate of merit before filing a medical malpractice lawsuit.

The justices ruled that the 2006 law violates the separation of powers since the state Legislature was settling legal rules that should be left to the judicial branch to determine.

"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," Justice Susan Owens wrote for the high court's majority. "Requiring plaintiffs to submit evidence supporting their claims prior to the discovery process violates the plaintiffs' right of access to courts."

The original case involves a lawsuit filed by Kimme Putman, whose 2007 lawsuit against Wenatchee Valley Medical Center was tossed out of Chelan County Court because she didn't file a certificate of merit.

She alleged that the medical center and two doctors were guilty of medical malpractice because they failed to diagnose her ovarian cancer in 2001 and 2002. The high court's decision sends Putman's lawsuit back to trial.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Barbara Madsen said the certificate of merit statute does not place a burden on potential litigants.

"The requirement that a certificate of merit accompany a pleading may impede a plaintiff's ability to advance to discovery but is reasonable when balanced against the efficiency interests of the courts and the interest of the legislature in creating affordable health care," Madsen wrote. "The statute serves to decrease the number of malpractice claims by requiring a plaintiff to make a preliminary showing that a medical professional believes the petitioner's claim has merit."

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