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PA Court Strikes Down Statutory Seven-Year Statue of Repose as Violative of State’s Constitution

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has struck down the statutory seven-year statute of repose as violative of the state’s constitution.

Justice Sallie Updike Mundy, in the majority opinion in Yanakos, et al. v. UPMC, et al., dated October 31, 2019, held that § 1303.513(a) of the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error (MCARE) Act did not comport with the state rights of due process and open access to the courts. The seven-year statute of repose was not substantially related to an important government interest to pass muster under the applicable legal test.

The Supreme Court analyzed the Superior Court’s determination that the statute was constitutional based on the case of Freezer Storage, Inc. v. Armstrong Cork Co., 382 A.2d 715 (Pa. 1978), which examined the legislatures authority to modify the common law. The treatment providers argued on appeal that the statute was justified in controlling the cost of professional liability insurance and curtailing litigation difficulties associated with stale claims. The Court held the MCARE Act curtailed the important constitutional right to civil remedy, and applied intermediate scrutiny to determine whether the statute was substantially related to achieving an important government interest. The Court specifically examined whether the statute had provided actuarial certainty to insurers in calculating insurance premium rates.

The Court noted there was no evidence that showed the initially proposed statute would provide actuarial certainty as no statistics were cited by legislatures and it was not clear how the time period of seven years was derived. The parties in the case also failed to show that the seven-year period had a substantial relationship to the legislative goal of controlling malpractice insurance costs or premiums.

Justice Christine Donohue filed a concurring and dissenting opinion that disagreed with the level of scrutiny applied, arguing for a strict scrutiny application. Justice David Wecht filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Thomas G. Saylor and Max Baer, opining that it was not the Court’s role to upend duly enacted legislation that the Court might sometimes deem imperfect or unwise.

The opinion arose from a case in Pittsburgh in which the son of a patient with a genetic condition donated a lobe of his liver to his mother for a transplant. Doctors failed to notify the son before the donation that he also suffered from the condition despite the pre-surgical tests clearly setting that forth. The plaintiffs asserted they did not discover the treatment providers’ negligence until 11 years after the trans plant surgery when additional testing revealed the mother still had the condition. Plaintiffs asserted on appeal that the statute of repose was arbitrary and capricious.

The state legislature, on request by the Supreme Court, is currently accumulating evidence regarding the effect of the MCARE Act’s venue rule, which requires that a medical malpractice plaintiff file in the county where the negligence occurred. The Yanakos opinion may offer insight as to the level of scrutiny upon which the venue rule may be analyzed when the legislature returns the information to the Court.

Joyce S. Pickles