Arizona High Court Upholds Law on Malpractice Suits

By | March 18, 2009

The Arizona Supreme Court upheld a state law that lawmakers intended to weed out meritless medical malpractice lawsuits by tightening qualifications of expert witnesses.

The ruling let stand a legislative move that an acting justice said intruded on the court’s own constitutional turf.

The decision joined by four of the court’s five regular justices overturned a lower court’s ruling that said the 2005 law was unconstitutional because it violated the doctrine of separation of powers between the branches of government.

The 2005 law requires that an expert witness in a case involving a malpractice lawsuit against a doctor who specialists in one area of medicine have expertise in the same area.

Groups representing physicians, hospitals and businesses supported the 2005 legislation, saying it would help restrain physicians’ rising premiums for malpractice insurance premiums and generally help encourage doctors to practice in Arizona.

Trial lawyers had opposed the legislation, saying it made it harder to press legitimate claims against doctors for neglect or wrongdoing.

The law’s constitutionality was questioned in a Maricopa County case in which a judge said a proposed expert witness was not qualified to testify in a woman’s lawsuit against a doctor.

A Court of Appeals panel reversed the trial judge, ruling that the law couldn’t pass constitutional muster because it conflicted with a court rule on expert witnesses and that the Arizona Constitution’s establishment of the court system means that legal rules prevail on procedural matters.

But the four justices’ ruling expressed a need to work with the legislative branch and said setting qualifications for expert witnesses is fair game for legislative action because it is a “substantive” legal matter dealing with the burden of proof imposed on plaintiffs.

That meant the Legislature was free to address “what it believes to be a serious substantive problem — the effects on public health of increased medical malpractice insurance rates and the reluctance of qualified physicians to practice here,” Justice Andrew Hurwitz wrote for himself and three other justices.

Court of Appeals Judge Peter Eckerstrom, temporarily replacing a regular justice, agreed with the outcome of the case but said the court must “enforce the provisions of our constitution that expressly grant the judiciary the primary authority over those procedural rules that serve core judicial functions.”

The case is Seisinger vs. Siebel, CV-080224-PR.

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