Vaccinate Your Children (Says a Federal Judge)

Flickr Creative Commons-Dan Hatton

Flickr Creative Commons-Dan Hatton

By Gregory M. Lipper

After nearly four years fighting about whether and when employers may exclude contraceptive coverage from employee health plans (and even block others from providing that coverage), it’s perhaps refreshing to see less controversial cases. And few healthcare-exemption cases are less controversial than those brought by parents who object to vaccinating their children. Although the challenged laws are objectively more intrusive than the contraceptive regulations—vaccination laws require parents to get the offending treatment injected into their children—courts thus far have correctly dismissed these challenges with little fanfare.

This dynamic surfaced again in a recent federal trial-court decision in California, in which the court dismissed a federal and state constitutional challenge to California legislation repealing the “personal belief exemption” to requirements that those entering schools and child-care facilities get vaccinated against diseases—including diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, and other dreadful ailments. The court acknowledged that eliminating the personal-belief exemption “raises principled and spirited religious and conscientious objections by genuinely caring parents and concerned citizens,” but stated that “the wisdom of the Legislature’s decision is not for this Court to decide.” Because the legislature decided to scrap the personal-belief exemption, California now exempts only those children (1) with actual medical reasons for avoiding the vaccination, (2) who are home schooled, or (3) who qualify for an Individualized Education Program under federal disabilty law. That’s a much more limited and manageable group of exemptees.

Although quite a relief for those seeking to minimize gratuitous suffering from preventable diseases, the court’s decision implicates several knotty legal issues and is worth exploring further.

Continue reading

Medical Malpractice vs. General Negligence under California Law

By Alex Stein

In its recent decision, Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hosp., 369 P.3d 229 (Ca. 2016), the California Supreme Court has sharpened the critical distinction between “medical malpractice” and general negligence.

Under California statute, a plaintiff’s ability to file a medical malpractice suit expires in one year after the accrual of the cause of action. The statute tolls this period for two additional years, provided that the plaintiff files the suit within one year after he discovers the injury or could reasonably have discovered it. Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 340.5 (providing that suits for medical malpractice must be filed “three years after the date of injury or one year after the plaintiff discovers, or through the use of reasonable diligence should have discovered, the injury, whichever occurs first.”). For other personal injury suits, the limitations period is “two years of the date on which the challenged act or omission occurred.” Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 335.1.

In the case at bar, the plaintiff was injured when one of the rails on her hospital bed collapsed. Continue reading

The Timeline Approach to Medical Malpractice Defenses

By Alex Stein

California’s Court of Appeal has recently delivered a first-impression decision on the conditions under which a patient’s own negligence can be asserted as a defense against medical malpractice allegations. Harb v. City of Bakersfield, — Cal.Rptr.3d —- (Cal.App. 5th Dist. 2015) 2015 WL 302291.  Among the materials cited by this decision was my article, Toward a Theory of Medical Malpractice, 97 Iowa Law Review 1201 (2012). The court used my “timeline approach” to separate the patient’s pre-treatment negligence, upon which providers of substandard medical care cannot rely, from self-injurious behaviors that occur during and after treatment and that can properly mitigate – and in extreme cases, even eliminate – the legal consequences of medical malpractice. Continue reading

Caps, Settlements, and Chutzpah under California’s Medical Malpractice Law

By Alex Stein

A recent California Supreme Court decision, Rashidi v. Moser, — P.3d —- (Cal. 2014), must be read by anyone interested in medical malpractice and in torts generally.

This decision involved a very serious incident of medical malpractice. A patient underwent surgery to stop severe nosebleed. His doctor ran a catheter through an artery in his leg up into his nose. Tiny particles were injected through the catheter to irreversibly block certain blood vessels. The particles, however, traveled to places other than the intended sites. As a result, when the patient awoke after the surgery he was permanently blind in one eye. He sued the doctor and the hospital for medical malpractice and the particles’ manufacturer for products liability. Subsequently, the patient settled with the particles’ manufacturer for $2,000,000 and with the hospital for another $350,000. The case went to trial against the doctor alone. Continue reading

Fixing California’s Tort Reform

By Alex Stein

California’s referendum initiative to make an inflation-based adjustment to the state’s 39-years old $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages for medical malpractice moves forward. See here.

The California Medical Association (CMA) unsurprisingly opposes this initiative. According to CMA, “The $250,000 cap on non-economic damages is an effective way of limiting frivolous lawsuits.”

This is hilarious. I am yet to see a frivolous plaintiff who looks down at a $250,000 windfall. Discouraging frivolous suits by capping noneconomic compensation is as good as deterring hypochondriacs and malingerers by kicking them out of the doctor’s office after five consecutive visits. The best way to deter frivolous medical-malpractice suits is to set up a categorical rule that requires plaintiffs to file an affidavit from a qualified medical expert that verifies the complaint against the defendant physician by specifying her deviation from the medical profession’s practices and protocols. This suit-screening rule has proved most effective both in theory and as an empirical matter. Unlike many other states, California has not yet implemented it, though. Therefore, instead of trying to defend California’s unreasonable cap, CMA will do well to urge the legislature to implement this rule. Continue reading