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Kordus v. Montes

Supreme Court of Wyoming

November 14, 2014

JEFF KORDUS and SUZETTE KORDUS, Parents and next friend to JK, a minor child, Appellants (Plaintiffs),
v.
LEIGH A. MONTES, M.D., Appellee (Defendant)

Appeal from the District Court of Sweetwater County. The Honorable Nena James, Judge.

Representing Appellants: David B. Hooper and Robert A. Bundy, Hooper Law Offices, P.C., Riverton, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Bundy.

Representing Appellee: W. Henry Combs, III, Murane & Bostwick, LLC, Casper, Wyoming; Meggan J. Hathaway, Murane & Bostwick, LLC, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Argument by Ms. Hathaway.

Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, KITE[*] VOIGT[] and DAVIS, JJ.

OPINION

Page 1139

BURKE, Chief Justice.

[¶1] This case involves a medical malpractice claim filed on behalf of J.K., a minor, against Appellee, Leigh A. Montes, M.D. The district court dismissed the complaint, ruling that the cause of action was barred by the two-year statute of limitations contained in Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-3-107. J.K. challenges that decision in this appeal. She contends that the statute, as applied to minors, violates the Wyoming Constitution.[1] We agree and reverse the district court's decision.

ISSUES

[¶2] J.K. lists two issues:

1. Does Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-3-107, as applied to J.K., a minor child, unconstitutionally violate her fundamental right of access to the courts and deny her equal protection of the laws?
2. Did the district court improperly grant Dr. Montes's motion to dismiss?

FACTS

[¶3] On March 19, 2007, twelve-year-old J.K. was admitted to Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County for appendicitis. Appellee performed an appendectomy. J.K. was discharged the following day, but complications developed requiring additional surgery and medical treatment. J.K. was transferred to the Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 5, 2007.

[¶4] Appellants filed a claim for medical malpractice with the Medical Review Panel on November 27, 2011. Dr. Montes waived the Medical Review Panel process and on March 8, 2012, the Medical Review Panel entered its Order of Dismissal. Appellants filed their complaint on March 22, 2012. Appellee responded with a motion to dismiss alleging that the claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations in Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-3-107(a)(ii). The district court granted the motion. Appellants filed a timely appeal.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶5] The constitutionality of a statute is a question of law that we review de novo. Baessler v. Freier, 2011 WY 125, ¶ 13, 258 P.3d 720, 725 (Wyo. 2011).

DISCUSSION

[¶6] In reviewing a constitutional challenge to a statute, we presume the statute is constitutional, and any doubt is resolved in favor of the statute's constitutionality. Bear Cloud v. State, 2013 WY 18, ¶ 15, 294 P.3d 36, 41 (Wyo. 2013); Krenning v. Heart Mountain Irrigation Dist., 2009 WY 11, ¶ 33, 200 P.3d 774, 784 (Wyo. 2009). The party challenging the constitutionality of a statute bears the burden of proving the statute is unconstitutional. Id. " That burden is a heavy one 'in that the appellant must clearly

Page 1140

and exactly show the unconstitutionality beyond any reasonable doubt." ' Id. (quoting Cathcart v. Meyer, 2004 WY 49, ¶ 7, 88 P.3d 1050, 1056 (Wyo. 2004)). Courts have a duty to uphold the constitutionality of statutes if at all possible, but it is equally imperative that we declare legislative enactments invalid when they transgress the Wyoming Constitution. Hoem v. State, 756 P.2d 780, 782 (Wyo. 1988).

[¶7] In Wyoming, an " unemancipated minor, by himself, has no procedural capacity to sue or be sued." Dye v. Fremont County School Dist. No. 24, 820 P.2d 982, 985 (Wyo. 1991).[2] Historically, tolling statutes have preserved and protected the rights of minors to pursue a cause of action that accrued during minority. Those tolling statutes predate statehood. The 1886 version of the tolling statute enacted by the Wyoming Territorial Legislature provided:

If a person, entitled to bring any action mentioned in this subdivision, except for a penalty or forfeiture, is, at the time the cause of action accrues, within the age of twenty-one years, insane, or imprisoned, such person may bring such action within the respective times limited by this chapter after such disability is removed.

1886 Wyo. Sess. Laws ch. 60, § 39.

[¶8] For most causes of action, those protections still exist and a minor has three years after attaining the age of majority to file suit for injury or damages sustained while a minor. However, the tolling statute was amended in 1976, and it now provides as follows:

If a person entitled to bring any action except for an action arising from error or omission in the rendering of licensed or certified professional or health care services or for a penalty or forfeiture, is, at the time the cause of action accrues, a minor or subject to any other legal disability, the person may bring the action within three (3) years after the disability is removed or within any other statutory period of limitation, whichever is greater.

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-3-114 (LexisNexis 2013) (emphasis added). The highlighted language was added in 1976 as part of an act " providing a shortened statute of limitations for injuries arising from error or omission in the rendering of licensed or certified professional or health care services." 1976 Wyo. Sess. Laws ch. 18, Preamble. As part of this same legislation, the legislature added a different statute of limitations governing medical malpractice claims by minors. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-3-107 provides, in relevant part, that:

(a) A cause of action arising from an act, error or omission in the rendering of licensed or certified professional or health care services shall be brought within the greater of the following times: . . .
(ii) For injury to the rights of a minor, by his eighth birthday or within two (2) years of the date of the alleged act, error or omission, whichever period is greater.

In her brief, J.K. challenges only Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-3-107. However, the two statutes are inextricably linked. Our decision as to the constitutionality of Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-3-107 will also determine the constitutionality of the highlighted portion of Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-3-114.

[¶9] On appeal, J.K. contends that this statute violates Article 1, Section 8 of the Wyoming Constitution, which provides that " All courts shall be open and every person for an injury done to person, reputation or property shall have justice administered without sale, denial or delay." This has been referred to as the " open courts" provision of our state constitution. See, e.g., Mills v. Reynolds, 837 P.2d 48, 54 (Wyo. 1992); Robinson v. Pacificorp, 10 P.3d 1133, 1136 (Wyo. ...


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