Washington State Tosses Certificate of Merit in Medical Malpractice Cases

The Washington Supreme Court unanimously (9-0) threw out a 2006 law that requires an injured patient to get a certificate of merit from an expert before suing for medical malpractice, finding that RCW 7.70.150, usurped the judicial branch’s power to determine the procedures by which courts adjudicate medical malpractice lawsuits. In other words, requiring a certificate of merit in medical malpractice cases in Washington violates the separation of state powers in Washington’s constitution.

I’m not necessarily against the idea of certificates of merit in medical malpractice cases – which have been required for years as a condition precedent to filing medical malpractice lawsuits in Maryland – even though I’m a little queasy about the idea of treating doctors in civil lawsuit differently that the rest of us. (The justification? We have been doing it that way for a while. Which is really no justification at all when you think about it. But let’s move on.) But if you read the opinion, it is hard to argue that a certificate of merit is anything other than a procedural rule.

Washington state constitution, similar to Ohio’s – is clear that procedural rules are for the judiciary.

Seven of the justices also said that the law was unconstitutional because it unduly burdened the right of access to courts.

“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,” wrote the majority, led by Justice Susan Owens. “Requiring plaintiffs to submit evidence supporting their claims prior to the discovery process violates the plaintiffs’ right of access to courts.”

Justices Barbara Madsen and James Johnson wrote in a separate concurring opinion that while they agreed that the law was unconstitutional on the basis of separation of powers, it did not unduly interfere with access to the courts.