Medical Malpractice Law (Washington Health Care Provider Civil Liability Law) – Part 1: A Brief Introduction and History Regarding Medical Malpractice in Washington State

(Medical Malpractice – Part 1 in a Several Part Series)

A Brief Introduction and History Regarding Medical Malpractice Lawsuits in Washington State.

In 1909, in the case of Helland v. Bridenstine, the Washington Supreme Court published its first opinion in a medical malpractice case. The trial had taken place in King County Superior Court and resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff, a woman who sued her physician for giving her a “loathsome disease” as a result of examining her with unsterilized instruments.

The jury awarded the woman $4,000. The Supreme Court found the verdict excessive and gave the woman the choice of a remittitur to $2,000 or a new trial. Helland v. Bridenstine 55 Wash. 470, 472, 477-478, 104 P. 626 (1909).

In 1976, six plus decades after Helland, our state legislature codified Washington’s medical negligence law in RCW Chapter 7.70 and RCW 4.24.290CW 4.16.350, a statute of limitations applicable solely to medical negligence claims and first enacted in 1971, was also amended in 1976.

In addition, on several occasions since 1976, our legislature has enacted statutes applicable to tort law generally, which have impacted medical malpractice claims. Perhaps the most significant of those statutes is RCW 4.22.070 which, enacted in 1986, eliminated joint and several liability for tort damages in the absence of a “fault free” plaintiff, an agent/servant relationship, or defendants who were found to be acting in concert.

Finally, during several sessions in recent years, the legislature has enacted statutes applicable solely to medical malpractice claims that have included, inter alia:

  • a special collateral source statute;
  • a requirement that a statutory voluntary arbitration process be affirmatively accepted or declined at the time a case is filed;
  • a mandatory mediation statute that incorporates a provision tolling the statute of limitations for one year;
  • a requirement to submit a certificate of merit by an expert at the time of filing the case;
  • a statute providing putative defendants with 90 days’ notice of the intent to sue; and
  • statutes imposing an eight year period of repose and eliminating the tolling of minors’ claims.

As will be discussed in future posts, several of those statutes have failed to withstand constitutional scrutiny.

(This article was written by Mark Johnson and Michael Sprangers. Mark and Michael’s practice focuses on medical malpractice, legal malpractice, and serious personal injury lawsuits. Their law firm Johnson Flora Sprangers PLLC is located in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. This article was published in the September 2019 edition of BAR BULLETIN – King County Bar Association, the entire article will be published in four parts. The electronic print version of the published BAR BULLETIN article can be accessed here.)   

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