This case involves an interpretation of one of the requirements of the Health Care Malpractice Claims Act, Maryland Code (1984 Repl.Vol.), §§ 3-2A-01 through 3-2A-09 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article. The issue is whether filing a medical malpractice claim with the Director of the Health Claims Arbitration Office, as required by § 3-2A-04 of the Act, and subsequently attending but declining to present evidence at or participate in an arbitration proceeding before a panel selected in accordance with § 3-2A-04, satisfies the statute's condition precedent to filing a tort action in circuit court.
In October 1979, the plaintiffs, Louise C. Bailey and her husband, John T. Bailey, filed a claim with the Director of the Health Claims Arbitration Office, alleging acts of medical malpractice by the defendants, Dr. Gerard Woel and Baltimore County General Hospital, in treating Mrs. Bailey in 1977 and 1978. Selection of an arbitration panel and minimal discovery took place, and the panel scheduled a hearing to be held February 1, 1982.
At the hearing, the panel chairman began by giving the plaintiffs' attorney the opportunity to make an opening statement. The attorney stated as follows: "After due discussion with Mr. and Mrs. Bailey ..., we decline to put on any testimony at this forum." He also declined to give any reason for this decision. The panel, with no evidence to determine the merits of the case, dismissed the claim on March 16, 1982.
On April 22, 1982, the plaintiffs filed a Petition to Nullify an Award and a Statement of Claim and prayer for jury trial in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. In response, the defendants filed a Motion Ne Recipiatur and a Motion Raising Preliminary Objection, arguing that because the plaintiffs refused to participate in the hearing before the Arbitration Panel, they had not complied with a condition precedent to bringing suit in circuit court. The circuit court, after a hearing, granted both motions.
The plaintiffs appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, and that court affirmed, Bailey v. Woel, 55 Md.App. 488, 462 A.2d 91 (1983). The plaintiffs petitioned this Court for a writ of certiorari, which we granted, 297 Md. 716, 467 A.2d 498 (1983).
The plaintiffs concede that their medical malpractice claim is one which the Act requires "be submitted to nonbinding arbitration as a condition precedent to the institution of a court action," Attorney General v. Johnson, 282 Md. 274, 283-284, 385 A.2d 57, appeal dismissed, 439 U.S. 805, 99 S.Ct. 60, 58 L.Ed.2d 97 (1978).
This Court thoroughly examined the Act in Attorney General v. Johnson, supra, 282 Md. 274, 385 A.2d 5. Our Johnson opinion made it clear that one of the goals of the General Assembly in establishing the arbitration procedure was to provide a means whereby court suits could be avoided as much as possible. The provision for arbitration was described as a requirement "that the litigants attempt to resolve their dispute by submitting it to an arbitral panel before presenting the controversy to a court for resolution," id. at 290, 385 A.2d 57. We likened the arbitration panel's function to that of a master in chancery, who initially "hears evidence and then reports his findings of fact and his recommendations to the chancellor," id. at 288, n. 14, 385 A.2d 57. The Johnson opinion, in rejecting an equal protection challenge to the statute, stated that
Clearly, then, the Court in Johnson interpreted the Act as requiring a thorough dispute resolution process in which a plaintiff would produce evidence to prove his case before the arbitration panel prior to filing suit in court.
Further support for requiring claimants to produce evidence before a medical malpractice arbitration panel is found in § 3-2A-05(d) of the Act, which provides that the "arbitration panel shall first determine the issue of liability with respect to a claim...." Obviously, if the panel has no evidence from which to determine liability, as the plaintiffs concede was the case here, the panel cannot perform its first duty.
Additionally, as this Court noted in Kindley v. Governor of Maryland, 289 Md. 620, 625, 426 A.2d 908 (1981), "a construction of a statute which is `unreasonable, illogical or inconsistent with common sense should be avoided.'" Accepting the plaintiffs' argument would mean that the General Assembly had enacted, in §§ 3-2A-04 and 3-2A-05, an elaborate arbitration scheme providing, inter alia, detailed procedures for selection of arbitrators, duties of the arbitrators, and hearings before the panel, made the scheme mandatory, and then provided a medical malpractice claimant with the option to follow or not follow the scheme. We cannot countenance such an illogical construction of the statute.
In reaching this conclusion, we are aware that courts in other states dealing with statutes similar to Maryland's have arrived at opposite results. In Phoenix Gen. Hosp. v. Super. Ct. of Maricopa, 138 Ariz. 504, 675 P.2d 1323 (1984), "counsel for the malpractice plaintiffs ... appeared before the [medical liability review] panel but declined to participate, refused to offer any evidence or to cross-examine, and, in effect, stood mute," 138 Ariz. at 505, 675 P.2d 1323. The Supreme Court of Arizona held that this satisfied the statutory requirement that the malpractice claim be first submitted to the arbitration panel. The Supreme Court of Florida reached the same conclusion in Fisher v. Herrera, 367 So.2d 204, 205 (Fla. 1978). In our view, both the Arizona court and the Florida court failed to give sufficient weight to the practical effect of such construction on the statutory scheme created by the legislatures.
Consequently, under the Maryland statute, a plaintiff who presents no evidence before a medical malpractice arbitration panel has not satisfied the condition precedent of submitting his claim to arbitration prior to instituting court action. The proper action for a circuit court to take when such a claim is filed is to dismiss the claim. See Oxtoby v. McGowan, 294 Md. 83, 91, 447 A.2d 860 (1982).
JUDGMENT OF THE COURT OF SPECIAL APPEALS AFFIRMED. PETITIONERS TO PAY COSTS.
It was held in Stone v. Buffalo General Hosp., 117 Misc.2d 889, 890-891, 459 N.Y.S.2d 394 (1983), that a trial court, in its discretion, could dispense with a required medical review panel in "uncomplicated, primarily factual disputes involving very little in the way of medical practice or expertise." The court noted that, under the New York statute, "[m]alpractice panels were intended to function as a screening process and as an additional, independent expert witness whose collective judgment, in the form of a unanimous opinion as to liability, was made admissible upon trial so as to offer the jury `.... further guidance and insight into .... complex and difficult area[s]' of medical practice or procedure."