A recent decision by the W. Va. Supreme Court of Appeals confirms the importance of pre-suit notice and the viability of a motion to dismiss in challenging claimants’ actions arising under the Medical Professional Liability Act (“MPLA”). In McLaughlin v. Murphy, the Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal, with prejudice, of a medical malpractice action for Plaintiff’s failure to produce a pre-suit Screening Certificate of Merit. Where the expressly stated purpose of the MPLA’s pre-suit notice requirements is to weed out frivolous claims, a well-placed motion to dismiss can achieve outright dismissal without the attendant costs of litigation through discovery. This opinion evidences the W. Va. Supreme Court’s continued adherence to its cautionary statement in Gray v. Mena, 218 W. Va. 564, 625 S.E.2d 326 (2005), which cautioned litigants to be diligent in adhering to the MPLA’s requirements “where the healthcare provider’s action could possibly be construed as having occurred within the context of the rendering of health care services.” Because the best defense is so often an aggressive offense, a motion to dismiss should be considered under appropriate circumstances where the claimant refuses to comply with the MPLA’s pre-suit requirements.
In the underlying case, Plaintiff served his complaint alleging medical malpractice related to the discharge of his father from the Behavioral Health Unit on tapering prescription medications. Plaintiff alleged that his father was negligently discharged when it was apparent he was a danger to himself and others. Plaintiff also criticized the discharge with prescriptions for tapering medications. Notwithstanding these allegations, Plaintiff attempted to circumvent the usual pre-suit notice requirements by claiming that his case concerned “administrative matters” outside the scope of the MPLA and its requirement for a screening certificate of merit.
On the first filing, the circuit court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss, informing Plaintiff that he must serve a screening certificate of merit for his case to be considered; otherwise the court would have no subject matter jurisdiction over the matter. While the Plaintiff’s motion to reconsider this dismissal was still pending, Plaintiff filed a second complaint re-stating the identical factual situation outlined in the first complaint. This second complaint was again served without a pre-suit screening certificate of merit.
After Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s second complaint, Plaintiff provided a screening certificate of merit, twenty months after his first complaint was filed. The circuit court entered a second order again dismissing the claims of the second complaint with prejudice, rejecting Plaintiff’s argument for exemption from the MPLA, and finding Plaintiff had notice of, but intentionally failed to adhere to the pre-suit requirement of a screening certificate of merit.
The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision, emphasizing its rulings that that MPLA applied to the Plaintiff’s case and that the case involved a complex medical issue requiring medical testimony. The Court highlighted the trial court’s initial ruling making it abundantly clear that Plaintiff’s claims fell within the purview of the MPLA – thus, requiring a screening certificate of merit. The Court also cited to its decision in Gray v. Mena, 218 W. Va. 564, 625 S.E.2d 326 (2005), which cautioned litigants to be diligent in adhering to the MPLA’s requirements “where the healthcare provider’s action could possibly be construed as having occurred within the context of the rendering of health care services.”
The McLaughlin decision underscores the critical importance of a screening certificate of merit in medical malpractice cases and how a properly placed motion to dismiss could resolve the case from the outset. A plaintiff’s bare allegations that a case is not medically complex or involves administrative functions is not enough to eliminate the requirement for plaintiffs to provide a screening certificate of merit. Additionally, the decision demonstrates the viability of a motion to dismiss where the screening certificate of merit is untimely.
Please feel free to contact the authors of this alert with any questions regarding the defenses available under the MPLA.