Supreme Court examines Kentucky's medical review panels

U.S. Court Watch

After Ezra Claycomb was born with severe brain damage and cerebral palsy, his mother considered filing a medical malpractice lawsuit. But in 2017, Kentucky's Republican-controlled legislature passed a law requiring all such lawsuits first be reviewed by a panel of doctors.

The law gave the panel nine months to issue an opinion on whether the lawsuit is frivolous — yet section 14 of Kentucky's Constitution says every person has access to the courts "without ... delay."

Claycomb's parents sued to block the new law, making Kentucky the latest state to have its medical review panels challenged in court.

A circuit judge agreed the law was unconstitutional. But Republican Gov. Matt Bevin appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments Wednesday.

"This is a modern day version of the poll tax," said attorney J. Guthrie True, who represents Claycomb in a lawsuit he says has class action status to represent all patients. "This has one purpose, and that is to obstruct the courthouse door."

Matthew Kuhn, an attorney for the governor, said the state Constitution's ban on delaying access to the courts only applies to the court system itself. It does not apply to the legislature, which he says has the power to impose rules on the court system. He noted Kentucky has other laws that limit when people can file lawsuits. For example, heirs wanting to sue the executor of an estate must wait at least six months after the executor has been appointed before they can do so. Kuhn says that law has never been challenged.

Kuhn said the medical review process is helpful because it gets the two sides talking before a lawsuit is filed, which could jumpstart settlement discussions. It also makes sure both sides have all the evidence collected before they go to a judge.

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