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Washington Supreme Court: Requiring Certificate of Merit for Medical Malpractice Suits Held Invalid

A Washington prisoner allegedly subjected to ruthless medical treatment by the state Department of Corrections (DOC) can take his claims to a jury, following a determination from the state Supreme Court on May 26, 2022, which invalidated a Washington law requiring a certificate of merit before his claims could proceed.

Timothy Martin was confined at Monroe Correctional Complex when he injured himself on his prison job in January 2012. Over a year later, in February 2013, he finally had surgery for an inguinal hernia. But his pain persisted. For that he got nothing more than a hot-water bottle – and even that took another seven months before it finally arrived in September 2013. The next year he got an ultrasound, but his request for a CT scan was denied as “medically unnecessary” because he could still walk. A follow-up with the surgeon in August 2014 resulted in injections for the pain, but those did not provide much relief.

Martin received only “intermittent” medication for pain in 2015, according to the complaint he later filed. Another ultrasound and a CT scan in 2016 produced inconclusive results. Meanwhile, the prison doctor decided that Martin was faking his symptoms to get drugs. Yet he arranged another consult with the surgeon, who recommended exploratory surgery. But DOC denied that as “medically unnecessary,” too, since Martin was still able to walk without “intractable” pain. When his water bottle broke in 2017, he was denied a replacement for six months. At last he was approved for exploratory surgery, which happened in 2019. The surgeon then found three undissolved stitches from the surgery six years before. Once they were removed, Martin’s pain ebbed.

With the aid of Seattle attorneys Dan N. Fiorito III and Michael C. Kahrs, Martin filed suit against DOC and its medical personnel in state court, making state-law medical malpractice claims, as well as civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Defendants removed the case to federal court for the Western District of Washington and filed for summary judgment, arguing that Martin’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations and because he had not filed a certificate of merit as required by RCW 7.70.150.

Passed in a 2006 medical malpractice overhaul, that law requires a plaintiff to obtain and file a certificate of merit from a healthcare provider, stating it is reasonably probable the defendant failed to follow accepted standards of care.

A federal magistrate recommended dismissal of claims that occurred before the three-year limitations period. As for RCW 7.70.150, the district court certified three questions to Washington’s Supreme Court.

The first was whether the certificate of merit requirement was facially invalid under the state constitution. In its decision, the Supreme Court answered “yes,” which obviated the need to answer the other two.

RCW 7.70.150 had previously been held unconstitutional by the Court as applied to a private defendant in Putman v. Wenatchee Valley Medical Center, PS, 166 Wn.2d 974, (Wash. 2009). There the certificate of merit requirement was found to violate plaintiffs’ right of access to the courts and the separation of powers doctrine.

“Significantly,” the Supreme Court wrote, “[that] analysis focused on the plaintiffs’ rights.” With respect to Martin’s claim, the difference was the “application of sovereign immunity to RCW 7.70.150,” since his suit was brought against state, not private defendants. DOC argued the legislature intended the law to apply to governmental medical providers – an argument rejected by the Court, which found the precedent DOC relied on “focus[ed] on a different statute” and “presented different issues.”

The Court held there was no indication the legislature intended that governmental defendants were the focus of RCW 7.70.150; rather, the law applied to both private and public medical providers. Therefore, its certificate of merit requirement was held facially invalid in all cases, including those against state defendants, based on the same analysis set forth in Putman. See: Martin v. Dep’t of Corr., 199 Wn.2d 557 (2022).

The case has now returned to the district court, which set trial for August 2024. The Washington State Association for Justice Foundation has filed an amicus brief in support of Martin. PLN will report additional developments as they are available. See: Martin v. Dep’t of Corr., USDC (W.D.Wash.), Case No. 2:20-cv-00311.

Most importantly now, based on the Supreme Court’s ruling, Washington state prisoners no longer need to obtain certificates of merit before filing medical malpractice claims against prison medical providers.