Ohio’s Statute of Repose for Medical Malpractice Suits Held Constitutional

Antoon v. Cleveland Clinic Found., — N.E.3d —, 2016 WL 6275504 (Ohio 2016)

In this recent case, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state’s statute of repose, R.C. 2305.113(C), that imposes an absolute limit on a plaintiff’s ability to sure care providers for medical malpractice. This statute provides that –

“(1) No action upon a medical, dental, optometric, or chiropractic claim shall be commenced more than four years after the occurrence of the act or omission constituting the alleged basis of the medical, dental, optometric, or chiropractic claim.

(2) If an action upon a medical, dental, optometric, or chiropractic claim is not commenced within four years after the occurrence of the act or omission constituting the alleged basis of the medical, dental, optometric, or chiropractic claim, then, any action upon that claim is barred.”

This statute was alleged to violate Article 1, Section 16, of the Ohio Constitution—a provision known as the “right to remedy” clause. This clause requires that “All courts shall be open, and every person, for an injury done him in his land, goods, person, or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law.”

The Court held that no such violation is present. The Court started out its analysis by observing that “While mindful of Ohioans’ constitutional right to a remedy, we undertake our review cognizant that a statute of repose is not an unjust and discreditable defense but rather, a law designed to secure fairness to all parties.” The Court cited in this connection its prior decision, Ruther v. Kaiser, 983 N.E.2d 291 (Ohio 2012), that underscores the social benefits of the repose and limitations statutes:

“Forcing medical providers to defend against medical claims that occurred 10, 20, or 50 years before presents a host of litigation concerns, including the risk that evidence is unavailable through the death or unknown whereabouts of witnesses, the possibility that pertinent documents were not retained, the likelihood that evidence would be untrustworthy due to faded memories, the potential that technology may have changed to create a different and more stringent standard of care not applicable to the earlier time, the risk that the medical providers’ financial circumstances may have changed—i.e., that practitioners have retired and no longer carry liability insurance, the possibility that a practitioner’s insurer has become insolvent, and the risk that the institutional medical provider may have closed.

Responding to these concerns, the General Assembly made a policy decision to grant Ohio medical providers the right to be free from litigation based on alleged acts of medical negligence occurring outside a specified time period.” Id. at 296.

The Court then went on to make two critical observations. First, “For the statute to be constitutional, the General Assembly must have a rational basis for determining the period of time during which a party may bring suit based on a vested cause of action” and that “The presumption in favor of constitutionality is strong. … ‘[E]nactments of the General Assembly [are] constitutional unless such enactments are clearly unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt.’” (citing State ex rel. Dickman v. Defenbacher, 128 N.E.2d 59, 63 (Ohio 1955)). Second and as importantly, “The statute here, in compliance with the right-to-remedy clause, does not “completely foreclose a cause of action for injured plaintiffs or otherwise eliminate their ability to receive a meaningful remedy.” (citing Flagstar Bank, F.S.B. v. Airline Union’s Mtge. Co., 947 N.E.2d 672, 678 (Ohio 2011)).

Based on these observations, the Court ruled that the statute of repose “is constitutional both when it extinguishes a vested and a nonvested cause of action.”