When will plaintiffs learn? In Hink v. Helfrich, the Missouri Supreme Court has recently added yet another to a long line of Missouri decisions upholding constitutional validity of the health care affidavit requirement for medical negligence actions, and strictly construing the mandatory statutory language. For more on this issue, see our prior post here.
Section 538.225.1 (Missouri Revised Statues) requires that a plaintiff or his counsel file an affidavit with the Court, stating that he has:
“… obtained the written opinion of a legally qualified health care provider which states that the defendant health care provider failed to use such care as a reasonably prudent and careful health care provider would have under similar circumstances and that such failure to use such reasonable care directly caused or directly contributed to cause the damages claimed in the petition.”
The Supreme Court in Hink held plaintiff’s medical malpractice case was properly dismissed for failure to file the required affidavit. In her Petition, the plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of this statute, as revised in 2005, arguing that it violated a plaintiff’s right to jury trial, Missouri’s open courts provision, and separation of powers. When the plaintiff failed to file any affidavit within the prescribed time limit (90 days, plus a 90-day extension as permitted by statute), the defendant physician filed a Motion to Dismiss. The trial court granted defendant's Motion, and plaintiff appealed.
The Supreme Court of Missouri endorsed its prior holding in Mahoney v. Doerhoff Surgical Services, Inc., 807 S.W.2d 503 (Mo. banc 1991), declaring that Section 538.225’s affidavit requirement does not violate the constitutional right of access to the courts under the Missouri Constitution, Article I, § 14, because access to the courts simply means “the right to pursue in the courts the causes of action the substantive law recognizes.” Missouri’s substantive medical malpractice law requires a plaintiff to prove by a qualified witness that the defendant deviated from an accepted standard of care. Without such testimony, the case can neither be submitted to the jury nor be allowed to proceed by the court.
The Court emphasized that Section 538.255’s affidavit requirement is consistent with this substantive law because the legislative purpose of requiring an “affidavit of merit” is to prevent frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits, when a plaintiff cannot put forth adequate expert testimony to support her claims. Thus, the requirement does not deny a fundamental right, or free access to the courts, and does not delay the pursuit of the cause in the courts. At most, it merely redesigns the framework of the substantive law to accomplish a rational legislative end of protecting the public and litigants from the cost of ungrounded medical malpractice claims.
Likewise, the Court once again (as in Mahoney) rejected the argument that Section 538.255’s affidavit requirement violates the right to trial by jury, because the statute simply reiterates existing requirements on plaintiffs: it does nothing more than “parallel” the requirement of Missouri Rule 55.03, that an attorney exercise a reasonable inquiry to ensure the suit is well grounded in fact and law. The affidavit of merit does nothing more than provide more specific guidance as to how medical malpractice plaintiffs must comply with existing pre-suit requirements rather than imposing any new requirement or other restrictions on his or her right to seek redress.
When first enacted, and at the time Mahoney was decided, Section 538.255 gave the trial court discretion on whether to dismiss, providing that if an affidavit was not filed within 90 days, “the court may, upon motion of any party, dismiss the action against such moving party without prejudice.” Mo. Rev. Stat. § 538.225.5, 1985 (emphasis added). In 2005, the statute was amended to provide the court “shall” dismiss the action if an affidavit is not filed, rather than the permissive “may.” This made it yet clear that the trial court had no option to dismiss, where no affidavit was timely filed.
Finally, the Court rebuffed plaintiff’s contention that the 2005 amendment to Section 538.255 defining “legally qualified healthcare providers” to include only those who practice in “substantially the same specialty” as the defendant, impermissibly imposes a stricter burden on the plaintiff than is required to prove a prima facie case of negligence at trial. As plaintiff Hink failed to file any affidavit, the Court held that she was not affected by the alleged deficits to Section 538.255, and therefore lacked standing to challenge its constitutionality. The Court did explain, however, that its interpretation of “substantially the same specialty” includes persons qualified by expertise rather than board certification, and that Section 538.255 does not require the affidavit to rely on only a single expert opinion for both breach of standard of care and causation.
Missouri courts could not be any clearer, Mo. Rev. Stat. § 538.225 is constitutional, mandatory, and here to stay.