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Vega v. Jordan Valley Medical Center, LP

Supreme Court of Utah

July 19, 2019

Yolanda Vega, Appellant,
v.
Jordan Valley Medical Center, LP, [1] Appellees.

          On Direct Appeal, Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Katie Bernards-Goodman No. 170900581

          Troy L. Booher, Beth E. Kennedy, Michael J. Teter, G. Eric Nielson, Mark W. Dahl, Lena Daggs, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

          Rodney R. Parker, Derek J. Williams, Nathanael J. Mitchell, Brian P. Miller, Frederick Mark Gedicks, Shawn McGarry, Kirk G. Gibbs, David C. Epperson, Salt Lake City, for appellees.

          Justice Himonas authored the opinion of the Court in which Chief Justice Durrant, Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Pearce, and Justice Petersen joined.

          OPINION

          HIMONAS, JUSTICE.

         INTRODUCTION

         ¶1 For reasons still unknown, Gustavo Vega, an otherwise healthy forty-four-year-old male, went in for a routine gallbladder operation and came out in a coma. He died a week later. His wife, Yolanda Vega, brought a medical malpractice action against Jordan Valley Medical Center and all related medical providers who were involved in Mr. Vega's care. The district court dismissed Ms. Vega's action pursuant to section 78B-3-423(7) of the Utah Health Care Malpractice Act[2] because she failed to obtain a certificate of compliance from the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing (DOPL). On appeal Ms. Vega challenges the constitutionality of the Malpractice Act on several grounds. We hold that the Malpractice Act violates Article VIII, section I of the Utah Constitution-the judicial power provision-by allowing DOPL to exercise the core judicial function of ordering the final disposition of claims, like those brought by Ms. Vega, without judicial review. Accordingly, we find the offending provisions in the Act unconstitutional, reverse the district court's grant of appellees' motion to dismiss, and remand this case for a determination on the merits.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 In 2014, Gustavo Vega underwent a routine procedure to have his gallbladder removed.[3] But after the conclusion of the surgery, Mr. Vega did not wake up. Mr. Vega had a CT scan that revealed "low lung volumes" and neurologists diagnosed him with an anoxic brain injury that occurred during the surgery or immediately afterwards. A cardiologist was consulted and noted in the record that the "events immediately following that [gallbladder] surgery are not clear to me." Mr. Vega died a week after the surgery at the age of forty-four. Following his death, Ms. Vega, his wife of twenty years, prepared to file this malpractice action under the Utah Health Care Malpractice Act, Utah Code § 78B-3-401 to -426.

         ¶3 By way of background, the Malpractice Act requires plaintiffs to obtain a certificate of compliance from DOPL before filing their case in district court. Utah Code § 78B-3-412(1)(b). This was not always the case. Prior to 2010, the Malpractice Act only required that plaintiffs submit to a non-binding prelitigation hearing. See Utah Code § 78B-3-416(1) (2009). Regardless of the outcome of the prelitigation hearing, plaintiffs were permitted to file their claims in district court; no certificate of compliance was required. Id. However, under the current regime, as enacted through the 2010 amendments, a certificate of compliance is a prerequisite to a plaintiff filing a medical malpractice action in district court. Utah Code § 78B-3-412(1)(b).

         ¶4 Pursuant to the Malpractice Act, Ms. Vega filed her notice of intent to commence this action. Id. § 78B-3-412(1)(a).[4] Parties that file this notice are then required to present their case to a prelitigation panel that consists of a doctor, a lawyer, and a layperson. Id. § 78B-3-416(4)(a)-(c). The prelitigation panel "proceedings are informal, nonbinding and . . . are compulsory as a condition precedent to commencing litigation." Id. § 78B-3-416(1)(c). The formal rules of evidence do not apply to these hearings and discovery is only permitted by a finding of "special order of the panel, and for good cause shown demonstrating extraordinary circumstances." Id. § 78B-3-417(4). DOPL may also "issue subpoenas for medical records directly related to the claim of medical liability." Id. § 78B-3-417(2). The panel must determine whether "each claim against each health care provider has merit or has no merit." Id. § 78B-3-418(2)(a)(i). If the panel finds that a plaintiff's claim has merit, DOPL issues a certificate of compliance for each meritorious claim, id. § 78B-3-418(3)(a), and the plaintiff can then file the case in district court, id. § 78B-3-412(1)(b).

         ¶5 If the panel decides that a plaintiff's claim lacks merit, the Malpractice Act permits the plaintiff to nonetheless compel DOPL to issue a certificate of compliance by obtaining an affidavit of merit from a health care provider. Id. § 78B-3-423(1). DOPL will issue a certificate of compliance for a claim if the affidavit of merit includes a statement that the plaintiff or the plaintiff's attorney "consulted with and reviewed the facts of the case with a health care provider who has determined after a review of the medical record and other relevant material involved in the particular action that there is a reasonable and meritorious cause for the filing of a medical liability action." Id. § 78B-3-423(2)(a). An affidavit of merit from a health care provider must state that:

(i) in the health care provider's opinion, there are reasonable grounds to believe that the applicable standard of care was breached;
(ii) in the health care provider's opinion, the breach was a proximate cause of the injury claimed in the notice of intent to commence action; and
(iii) the reasons for the health care ...

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