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Request for mediation tolls medical-malpractice statute of limitations for wrongful death claims

When a wrongful death is alleged to be the result of medical malpractice, the medical-negligence statute of limitations applies, the Supreme Court held in Fast v. Kennewick Pub. Hosp. Dist. The Court also held that statute of limitations is tolled for up to a year by a claimant’s good-faith request for mediation under the medical- negligence statute.

In this case, a mother-to-be who had previously struggled with infertility experienced symptoms in her pregnancy that caused her some alarm. She reported to her doctor that she experienced bleeding during the first few months of pregnancy, excessive thirst, frequent urination, and a ten-pound weight loss. Her doctor and his staff reassured her that her symptoms were normal.

When she reached approximately 24 weeks gestation, she was scheduled for her glucose tolerance test, which checks for gestational diabetes. The test was postponed and was not administered until her 29th week. The results prompted the doctor to immediately send her to the hospital for diabetes management.

Her doctor also prescribed fetal monitoring. The results showed episodes of fetal distress, but the hospital staff did not act on those results. Within a day, the staff could not find a fetal heartbeat, and the mother-to- be had to deliver her stillborn baby.

Nearly three years after the child’s death, the parents served requests for mediation on the doctors and hospital involved. The parents relied upon the medical-negligence statute of limitations, RCW 4.16.350(3), under which such a request tolls the statute for an additional year. After the providers expressed no interest in mediation, the parents filed a complaint, alleging among other things the wrongful death of a child, a statutory claim that does not carry its own statute of limitations.

The providers moved for summary judgment on the basis of the expiration of the statute of limitations. They relied on RCW 4.16.080(2), the general torts catch-all statute of limitations. It provides that actions involving injury to the person not enumerated elsewhere must be commenced within three years. The trial court agreed and dismissed the wrongful death action.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, reasoning that the catch-all statute applies to actions for wrongful death caused by medical malpractice. The Washington Supreme Court granted review.

The Supreme Court held that the medical-negligence statute of limitations applies to claims of wrongful death caused by medical negligence, which in turn permits tolling of up to a year when the claimant makes a good-faith request for mediation. Therefore, the parents’ wrongful death claim was timely even though it was filed more than three years following the death of their child.

Medical negligence claims are governed exclusively by a statute enacted in part to keep the costs of health care and malpractice insurance down. The statute is broadly worded to encompass all civil actions for damages occurring as a result of health care. Further, the statute of limitations for such actions is also broadly worded. However, neither statute expressly included claims for wrongful death within the term “damages for injury occurring as a result of health care.” 

The Court found a number of statutory sections that supported its determination that the medical-negligence statute applied despite this absence of express language. First, it noted that the statutory definition of “claim” included a demand for damages in the event of injury or death. Similarly, the definition of “claimant” includes a decedent’s estate.

Second, the mandate for mediation in all medical malpractice cases, and an accompanying tolling provision incentivizing such resolution before litigation, supported the Court’s rationale. If wrongful death claims were carved out of the mediation provisions, the legislature’s intent for mediation of all medical malpractice claims would be thwarted.

Third, the catch-all statute of limitations expressly states that it only applies to personal injury actions “not hereinafter enumerated.” The claim that medical malpractice caused the death of the child is a claim for damages for injury occurring as a result of health care, the enumerated basis for the medical-negligence statute of limitations. The Court held this meant the action was “hereinafter enumerated” and the catch-all provision expressly did not apply.

Justice Madsen drafted a separate opinion, concurring in the result, but stressing that the decision does not apply to all wrongful death actions, only those based on a claim for damages allegedly resulting from the provision of health care. Other wrongful death claims would continue to be governed by the catch-all provision in RCW 4.16.080(2).

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