Generally, the statute of limitations applicable to any legal action will be tolled during a plaintiff’s minority, incompetency, or incarceration, but RCW 4.16.190(2) specifically eliminates tolling for minors in medical malpractice actions. This statute served to protect medical professionals and their insurers from uncertainty of “stale” claims that could have been pursued by the minor’s parent but later brought when the alleged damages could have been greatly increased or the standard of care had changed. In Schroeder, the 19 year old plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of this anti-tolling statute and won. Read on to find out why.
Claims Pointer: Generally, a lawsuit alleging medical malpractice, a form of negligence, must be filed within three years of the “act or omission” giving rise to the claim or one year after the patient “discovered or reasonably should have discovered” that the injury was caused by the act or omission in question. However, in the case for minors, the tolling statute applicable to most negligence claims now extends the statute of limitations for minors until they reach of the age of majority. This practically extends a minor’s ability to file a medical malpractice claim against a healthcare professional.
Schroeder v. Weighall, 87207-4, 2014 WL 172665 (Wash. Jan. 16, 2014)
Plaintiff Jaryd Schroeder (“Schroeder”) challenged the constitutionality of the Washington Statute that eliminated the tolling of the statute of limitations for minors in the context of medical malpractice claims. Generally, a lawsuit alleging medical malpractice, a form of negligence, must be filed within three years of the “act or omission” giving rise to the claim or one year after the patient “discovered or reasonably should have discovered” that the injury was caused by the act or omission in question. However, in the case for minors, the tolling statute applicable to most negligence claims that extends the statute of limitations for minority is eliminated in medical malpractice actions. RCW 4.16.190(2)
On May 22, 2001, Schroeder sought treatment from the defendants, Dr. Steven Weighall and Columbia Basin Imaging. Schroeder was nine years old at the time and suffered from headaches, nausea, dizziness, weakness in his legs, and double vision. He underwent an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), which Weighall reviewed and found to be normal. Schroeder’s symptoms persisted. In November 2009, when he was 17, Schroeder underwent another MRI and this time the radiologist who reviewed the image found an Arnold Chiari Type I Malformation, a condition in which brain tissue protrudes into the spinal canal. The radiologist also reviewed the 2001 MRI and concluded that the condition had been present to the same extent at that time. On January 13, 2011, the day before his 19th birthday, Schroeder filed a medical malpractice action against Weighall, Columbia Basin Imaging, PC, and a third party subsequently dismissed by stipulation.
Schroeder and his mother discovered Weighall’s alleged omission in November, 2009. On that date, Schroeder was still a minor. If not for RCW 4.16.190(2), the one-year statute of limitations applicable to his claim would have tolled until his 18th birthday on January 14, 2010. However, the anti-tolling statute placed Schroeder’s January 13, 2011 filing date about two months outside the statute of limitations. On that basis, the trial court dismissed his action.
On appeal, the Court looked to the constitutionality of RCW 4.16.190(2) and the exemption from tolling medical malpractice claims for minors. Specifically, the court analyzed Article I, section 12 of the Washington Constitution providing that “[n]o 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.” To determine the constitutionality of this provision, the court will scrutinize the legislative distinction to determine whether it in fact serves the legislature’s stated goal. Weighall argued that the intent of the statute was limit defendants from having to defend “stale” medical malpractice claims and argued that parents typically pursue the claims of a minor. The Court rejected these contentions and further stated that the anti-tolling statute violated state equal protection rights.
The Court held that RCW 4.16.190(2) violates article I, section 12 of the Washington State Constitution, and reversed the trial court’s summary judgment order dismissing Schroeder’s medical malpractice action.
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