Court tosses Utah law that blocked malpractice lawsuits

Stock image, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Supreme Court has struck down part of a law that allowed a state panel to block malpractice lawsuits from reaching the courtroom.

The court ruled last week that it is unconstitutional for the panel under the state Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing to make final decisions in lawsuits without the opportunity of judicial review.

Yolanda Vega sued a Salt Lake City-area hospital after her husband Gustavo Vega died in 2014 after falling into a coma following gall bladder surgery.

State law mandates a process outside the court system for claims to go through before malpractice suits can proceed. A panel made up of a medical professional, a lawyer and a layperson determines the merit of malpractice claims.

If the panel rejects the claims, the law allows for health care providers to make a case for the claim. The panel can still reject the claim, preventing the case from moving into the court system.

In the Vega case, the panel rejected the family’s claims and a doctor’s affidavit.

Vega filed the lawsuit in state court, which a judge dismissed. She appealed, and the state Supreme Court sided with her.

“If there is no review or appeal to the courts, then the ruling of the panel is not a recommendation or an opinion — it is an authoritative and final ruling on whether a claim has merit,” Justice Deno Himonas wrote.

The court found that the state Constitution requires the judicial system to have the final say.

“The Supreme Court said, ‘Wait a minute, it isn’t your job to adjudicate civil lawsuits — that’s our job,'” Eric Nielson, an attorney for Vega, told the Deseret News. “This got rid of one particularly egregious, offensive hurdle.”

The state Department of Commerce oversees the licensing division. A spokeswoman said it is in the process of complying with the ruling.

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