Texas AG defends state medical malpractice reforms

By Chris Rizo | Nov 19, 2009

AUSTIN(Legal Newsline)-The Texas attorney general has urged the state Supreme Court to leave intact medical malpractice reforms.

The Texas Legislature in 2003 imposed a strict 10-year statute of repose on medical malpractice claims.

The law -- House Bill 4 -- was aimed at helping to control skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance premiums, which were blamed for doctors leaving the Lone Star State at the time.

In Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott's brief to the Supreme Court, state Solicitor General James Ho noted law was enacted because "the Legislature concluded that indeterminate and unpredictable liability regimes drive up the cost of health care and reduce access to physicians."

The attorney general's friend-of-the-court brief also argues that Texas's 10-year statute of repose does not interfere with an individual's right to file a medical malpractice lawsuit.

"The Legislature struck a fair balance between the rights of plaintiffs to obtain redress for injuries and the rights of physicians and other health care providers from having to litigate stale claims," the AG's amicus brief said. "The balance struck by the Legislature was reasonable -- and constitutional."

Abbott's brief was filed in the case of Methodist Healthcare System of San Antonio v. Rankin.

The case stems from a 2006 lawsuit Emmalene Rankin filed against two physicians and the Methodist Healthcare System of San Antonio 11 years after a surgical sponge was allegedly left behind in her body after her hysterectomy in 1995.

The sponge was found lodged in Rankin's abdomen more than a decade after her hysterectomy at Southwest Texas Methodist Hospital in San Antonio.

At trial, Rankin's lawyers said the state's statute of repose violated the Texas Constitution's Open Courts provision that provides that "all courts shall be open, and every person for an injury done to him, in his lands, goods, person or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law."

The Bexar County district court found that Rankin's lawsuit exceeded the statute of limitations, but the decision was reversed last year by the Fourth Court of Appeals, which also struck down the statute of repose under the Open Courts provision.

"The Legislature is certainly entitled to set a period of time within which claims must be brought, but it may not deny a plaintiff a reasonable opportunity to discover the alleged wrong and bring suit," the appeals court ruled.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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