This is an appeal from a judgment maintaining the exception of prescription filed by defendant, Dr. John A. Thomas.
The following facts were stipulated to by the parties and filed with the trial court:
The only issue on appeal is whether LSA-R.S. 9:5628 is constitutional. LSA-R.S. 9:5628 provides as follows:
Plaintiff did not discover the alleged act of malpractice until after the three year peremptory period provided in LSA-R.S. 9:5628 had passed; therefore, he was precluded from bringing an action for damages. He contends that LSA-R.S. 9:5628 violates La. Const. art. 1, Sec. 2
Plaintiff contends that LSA-R.S. 9:5628 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Louisiana Constitution. Equal protection of the laws mean that state laws must affect alike all persons similarly situated. However, the legislature has wide discretion in enacting laws which affect some group of persons and interests differently from others. Burmaster v. Gravity Drainage Dist. No. 2, 366 So.2d 1381 (La. 1978); Succession of Robins, 349 So.2d 276 (La.1977).
In this case, we are dealing with a particular group of individuals, viz., victims of malpractice. Victims who discover their injuries within three years of the alleged act, omission or neglect may file suit for damages (if suit is otherwise brought timely);
Equal protection requires that if the law violates a "fundamental interest" or is based upon a trait which renders the classification "suspect", there must be a compelling governmental interest to justify the difference in treatment by law. In cases where there is no fundamental right involved and no suspect classification, the issue is whether the law which discriminates is supported by a rational basis reasonably related to the governmental interest sought to be advanced by it. Everett v. Goldman, 359 So.2d 1256 (La.1978).
We initially find that the statute does not affect a fundamental right or create a suspect classification.
This statute is one of several passed in response to sharp increases in medical malpractice insurance rates and the resulting threat of reduced health care to the patient and of greatly increased medical costs to the public. Limitations on the time within which an injured patient may bring a malpractice action will serve to restrict the number of suits brought. The interest sought to be advanced is the alleviation of the insurance crisis by reducing medical malpractice claims, thereby reducing medical malpractice insurance rates, resulting in health care being more accessible to patients at reasonable costs. We find that the classification is rationally related to the state objective sought to be achieved.
Plaintiff particularly relies on the Mills case, supra. That case involved the constitutionality of a Texas statute which provided that a paternity suit to identify the natural father of an illegitimate child for purposes of obtaining support must be brought before the child is one year old, or the suit is barred. The Supreme Court found that the statute did not provide a time period sufficiently long in duration to present a reasonable opportunity for those with an interest in illegitimate children to assert claims on behalf of the children and that the time limitation placed on that opportunity was not substantially related to the state's interest in avoiding litigation of
The standard used in the Mills case to test the constitutionality of the statute involved was whether the statute was substantially related to the state's interest in avoiding the prosecution of stale or fraudulent claims. This is the proper standard to be used to determine whether a statute relating to illegitimates violates guarantees of equal protection, Lalli v. Lalli, 439 U.S. 259, 99 S.Ct. 518, 58 L.Ed.2d 503 (1978), and is higher than the standard for analysis used in cases such as the instant case, viz., that the law which discriminates must be supported by a rational basis reasonably related to the governmental interest sought to be advanced. The Court in Mills could conceive of no essential evidence that invariably would be lost in one year; nor could it find that the passage of a year would appreciably increase the likelihood of fraudulent claims. Thus, the substantial relationship was lacking.
In the instant case, under the standard enunciated above, we have found that LSA-R.S. 9:5628 bears a rational relationship to the state's interest in reducing the costs of health care to the public. The gist of plaintiff's argument seems to be that three years is not long enough for acts of malpractice to be discovered. We disagree. The Louisiana statute provides a time period sufficiently long to allow for a great majority of these types of claims to be filed.
Louisiana courts have long recognized that it is particularly within the scope of the legislature to establish time periods affecting the imposition of liability for past acts. Burmaster v. Gravity Drainage Dist. No. 2, supra. The court in Burmaster found that LSA-R.S. 9:2772, which bars all actions for damages against "any person performing or furnishing the design, planning, supervision, inspection or observation of construction or the construction of an improvement to immovable property; (1) More than ten years after the date of the registry in the mortgage office of acceptance of the work by owner; ..." passed constitutional muster.
Similarly, in Ancor v. Belden Concrete Products, Inc., 260 La. 372, 256 So.2d 122 (La.1971), the court upheld a two year peremptory period for a claim for workmen's compensation benefits in LSA-R.S. 23:1209 of the Louisiana Workmen's Compensation Act. In Ancor, the injury was discovered, as in the instant case, after the peremptory period had expired.
Accordingly, we find that LSA-R.S. 9:5628 does not offend the Equal Protection Clause of the Louisiana Constitution.
A statute violates notions of substantive due process when it does not bear a real and substantial relationship to an appropriate governmental objective. Everett v. Goldman, supra. The test is whether the regulation is reasonable in relation to the goal to be attained and is adopted in the interest of the community as a whole. We find that the statute does not violate substantive due process for basically the same reasons we find that it does not violate guarantees of equal protection.
Conceivably, in a small number of cases injuries for medical malpractice may not manifest themselves for many years after the malpractice occurs. To allow an indefinite time for claims to be brought is to allow for an increase in the number of claims brought with the resultant increase in insurance rates and increase in medical costs to the public. A time limit on liability must be established at some point. We are of the opinion that three years is a reasonable length of time for acts of malpractice to be discovered and suits to be instituted therefor.
The objective of the legislature was obviously to decrease health care costs to the public and thereby make health care more readily available. This is a legitimate goal for a state lawmaking body to attempt to attain. We therefore find that LSA-R.S. 9:5628 bears a real and substantial relationship to the public welfare because its enactment will help further increased
Also, it is peculiarly in the realm of the legislature to regulate causes of action, including replacement and even abolition of causes of action, that one person may have against another for personal injuries. Burmaster v. Gravity Drainage Dist. No. 2, supra.
ACCESS TO THE COURTS
Plaintiff's last argument is that the statute infringes upon his right of access to the courts. The right of access to the courts protects fundamental interests to a greater extent than those interests not considered to be of fundamental constitutional importance. See Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 97 S.Ct. 1491, 52 L.Ed.2d 72 (1977); United States v. Kras, 409 U.S. 434, 93 S.Ct. 631, 34 L.Ed.2d 626 (1973); Boddie v. Connecticut, 401 U.S. 371, 91 S.Ct. 780, 28 L.Ed.2d 113 (1971); Everett v. Goldman, supra. When a claimant is not asserting a right subject to special constitutional protection, access may be limited or regulated if there is a rational basis for the limitation and regulation. See Everett v. Goldman, supra and cases cited therein.
We have already held that the right urged by plaintiff is not a fundamental right. We have also found that there is a rational basis for the statute. Therefore, the statute does not unconstitutionally deny plaintiff access to the courts.
For the above reasons, the judgment of the trial court is affirmed at appellant's costs.