Utah’s Supreme Court has unanimously struck down a state law requiring medical malpractice plaintiffs to obtain a “certificate of compliance” from a state agency. The court ruled that the law, known as the Malpractice Act, was unconstitutional as it violates the separation of powers doctrine by limiting the role of the judiciary.
In Utah, a certificate of compliance is issued once Utah’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing (DOPL) reviews a malpractice claim and determines it has merit. If the claim is rejected by the DOPL, plaintiffs can still receive the certificate upon attestation of their claims by an expert.
In the case, a patient’s widow, Yolanda Vega, accused health care providers of causing the death of her husband, who died a week after surgery. Vega sought a certificate of compliance from the DOPL but was denied and filed suit. The trial court dismissed the case for failing to comply with the Malpractice Act, and Vega subsequently appealed.
The Utah Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case, agreeing with Vega that the Malpractice Act was facially unconstitutional. Specifically, the court cited to the separation of powers doctrine, where the roles of executive branch (the DOPL) must not encroach on the roles of the judiciary. Without giving claimants an opportunity to appeal a DOPL decision, the court states the agency is “improperly adjudicating claims on the merits.”