Schroeder v. Wieghall

When Jaryd Schroeder was nine-years old, he sought treatment from Dr. Steven Weighall and Columbia Basin Imaging.  During this treatment, he received an MRI, which Weighall reviewed and concluded was normal.  Nearly eight years later, at the age of 17, Schroeder underwent another MRI.  This MRI revealed that Schroeder suffered from an Arnold Chiari Type I Malformation.  The radiologist reviewing the second MRI concluded that the condition had been present to the same extent at the time of Schroeder’s first MRI.

Subsequently, the day before his 19th birthday, Schroeder filed a medical malpractice action against Weighall, Columbia Basin Imaging, PC, and a third party (who was dismissed by stipulation).  In response, Weighall argued that the action was time barred by the applicable statute of limitations and subject to the minority-tolling exemption codified at RCW 4.16.190(2).  The trial court agreed with Weighall and dismissed Schroeder’s action.  Schroeder then appealed directly to the Washington Supreme Court, arguing that RCW 4.16.190(2) violated article I, section 10 and article I, section 12 of the Washington State Constitution.

The Washington Supreme Court reversed.

In doing so, the Court concluded that RCW 4.16.190(2), which eliminates the tolling of the statute of limitations as to minors in medical malpractice cases, violates article I, section 12 of the Washington State Constitution.  In so holding, the Court reaffirmed that article I, section 12 “was more protective than the federal equal protection clause and required a very different analysis in certain situations.”  To this end, the Court provided that article I, section 12, “unlike the federal equal protection clause, applies to special interest legislation.”  The Court then turned to its two-part test for determining whether a statute violates article I, section 12: “First, we ask whether a challenged law grants a ‘privilege’ or ‘immunity’ for purposes of our state constitution,” and “[i]f the answer is yes, then we ask whether there is a ‘reasonable ground’ for granting that privilege or immunity.”

Applying that test, the Court concluded that the tolling exemption “limit[ed] the pursuit of common law claims against certain defendants” and was therefore an “immunity” under article I, section 12.  This let the Court turn to the second prong of its test.  As to this prong, the Court noted that the “reasonable ground test is more exacting than rational basis review [under federal law]” and concluded that the legislature had no “reasonable grounds” for the tolling exemption.  Thus, the Court concluded that RCW 4.16.190(2) was unconstitutional.

Additionally, the Court went on to note that RCW 4.16.190(2) “raises concerns other than special interest favoritism,” notably burdening a particularly vulnerable minority.  While the Court did not hold that minors constitute a semi-suspect class under article I, section 12 (subject to intermediate scrutiny), it did note that “the group of minors most likely to be adversely affected by RCW 4.16.190(2) may well constitute the type of discrete and insular minority whose interests are a central concern in our state equal protection cases.”

The Court did not reach Schroeder’s article I, section 10 argument.

Justice Johnson filed a dissenting opinion similarly finding that RCW 4.16.190(2) involved a privilege or immunity but that the legislature had a reasonable ground for doing so–reducing stale claims and reducing medical costs.