Commonwealth v. Claycomb

Decision Date15 November 2018
Docket Number2017-SC-000614-TG,2017-SC-000615-TG
Citation566 S.W.3d 202
Parties COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY, Cabinet for Health and Family Services, ex rel. Adam Meier, in His Official Capacity as Secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services Appellant v. Ezra CLAYCOMB, a Minor, BY AND THROUGH His Next Friend, Natural Guardian and Parent, Tonya CLAYCOMB and Tonya Claycomb, on Behalf of All Others Similarly Situated, Appellees
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court — District of Kentucky

Of all the rights guaranteed by state constitutions but absent from the federal Bill of Rights, the guarantee of a right of access to the courts to obtain a remedy for injury is possibly the most important.1 Kentucky's version of this guarantee, referred to in our jurisprudence as the open-courts provision, appears in the Bill of Rights, Section 14, of the Kentucky Constitution, which states: "All courts shall be open, and every person for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law, and right and justice administered without sale, denial or delay."

The Kentucky General Assembly in its 2017 regular session enacted Kentucky Revised Statutes ("KRS") Chapter 216C, the Medical Review Panel Act, establishing a mandatory process to delay certain medical-malpractice claimants' ability to access immediately the courts of the Commonwealth by creating medical-review panels and requiring a panel's opinion about the merits of the claimant's proposed complaint against health-care providers before the claimant may file suit. This case presents to us on discretionary review a legal challenge to KRS Chapter 216C in which the trial court declared the Act unconstitutional on several grounds. We hold that because the Act delays access to the courts of the Commonwealth for the adjudication of common-law claims, Chapter 216C violates Section 14 of the Kentucky Constitution.

A. The General Assembly enacts the Medical Review Panels Act.

KRS Chapter 216C "provides for the establishment of medical review panels to review proposed malpractice complaints against health care providers ...."2 KRS 216C.020(1) makes clear:

All malpractice and malpractice-related claims against a health care provider, other than claims validly agreed for submission to a binding arbitration procedure, shall be reviewed by a medical review panel. Such an action may not be commenced in a court in Kentucky before:
(a) The claimant's proposed complaint has been presented to a medical review panel established under this chapter; and
(b) An opinion is given by the panel. If the panel has not given its opinion within nine (9) months after the filing of the proposed complaint, the plaintiff may commence the action in court.

KRS 216C.010(4) defines health care provider to mean:

[A]ny health facility as defined in KRS 216B.015, or a provider, including natural persons, of health care or health services, including, but not limited to those licensed, certified, registered under, or subject to KRS 194A.700 to 194A.729 or KRS Chapter 310, 311, 311A, 31 IB, 312, 313, 314, 314A, 315, 319, 319A, 320, 327, 333, 334A, or 335 and the current and former officers, directors, administrators, agents, or employees of any such persons or entities acting within the course and scope of their office, employment, or agency.

In other words, as the trial court noted, the medical review panel must first review any malpractice or malpractice-related claim filed on or after June 29, 2017, against any individual or entity bearing some sort of relationship to the health care profession and industry, "other than claims validly agreed for submission to a binding arbitration procedure,"3 before that claim is subject to adjudication:

Any action involving a dependent claim accruing after June 29, 2017, shall be immediately and automatically stayed until:
(a) The claimant's proposed complaint against the health care provider has been presented to a medical review panel established under this chapter and an opinion is given by the panel; or
(b) Nine (9) months after the filing of the proposed complaint if the panel has not given its opinion.4

The panel does not engage in any adjudication of a claimant's claim.5 Rather, the entire purpose and function of the panel is to generate an opinion about the merits of the claim, an opinion that may or may not have any evidentiary usefulness in a court of law.6 Finally, Chapter 216C does allow the parties to bypass medical review panel review, but only if all parties involved in the action agree.7

B. The trial court declares the Medical Review Panels Act unconstitutional.

Ezra Claycomb, a minor, by and through his next friend, natural guardian, and parent, Tonya Claycomb, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, sued the Commonwealth in the trial court, challenging the constitutionality of Chapter 216C. Ezra suffers from severe brain damage and cerebral palsy allegedly caused by medical malpractice. But for Chapter 216C, Claycomb could immediately file a medical-malpractice suit in circuit court.

Claycomb specifically argued in the trial court that Chapter 216C violates: (1) the equal protection and due process guarantees under Sections 1, 2, and 3 of the Kentucky Constitution ; (2) the open-courts and jural rights guarantees under Sections 7, 14, 54, and 241 ; (3) the separation of powers doctrine under Sections 27, 28, 109, and 116; (4) the prohibition against special legislation under Sections 59 and 60; and (5) the subject and title requirements of Section 51. The trial court found violations of the equal protection guarantee, the prohibition against special legislation (although did not provide an analysis of that issue), the separation of powers doctrine, and the open-courts and jural rights guarantees but found that Chapter 216C did not violate the subject and title requirements of Section 51.8 The trial court found the entirety of Chapter 216C unconstitutional and permanently enjoined the Commonwealth from enforcing any of its provisions.

The Commonwealth then requested in the Court of Appeals emergency relief from the trial court's order under Kentucky Rule of Civil Procedure ("CR") 65.08(7) and suspension of the enforcement of the permanent injunction under CR 65.08(2), which the Court of Appeals granted. This Court then accepted transfer to decide the merits of the case.


At the outset, we note that our analysis focuses solely on Section 14 of the Kentucky Constitution because we find Chapter 216C violates that constitutional provision.9

A. Section 14 acts as a limitation against all departments of government interfering with its guarantees.

For more than two and a quarter centuries, the language of Section 14 has appeared verbatim in all four of Kentucky's constitutions, first as Article XII, § 13 of the original one in 1792. But as the former Dean of the University of Kentucky College of Law, the late Thomas R. Lewis, notes in his scholarly analysis, the remedy guarantee provided for in Section 14 is an ancient right dating from Magna Carta in 1215.10

Tracing the pedigree of Section 14 to Magna Carta brings up a fundamental question with which Kentucky's highest court has famously struggled since the antebellum years of the Commonwealth: Is Section 14 a limitation on all departments of state government interfering with its guarantees, or just the judiciary?

Dean Lewis's ultimate conclusion about the reach of Section 14, as confirmed by his study of the historic explication of the right by Sir William Blackstone, is: "[T]hat common law courts resolve disputes, creating precedents, and thus law, in the absence of governing legislation but subject to modification by the people through their elected representatives ."11 In other words, Blackstone and Dean Lewis would likely argue, as has the Commonwealth in this case, that the constraints on government reflected in Section 14 do not apply to the popularly elected legislature.

Almost 200 years ago, this Commonwealth's highest court "found that access to courts was ‘clearly indicative of the duty which the functionaries of the government owe to the citizens’ and that if ‘it shall occur that the right of the citizen has been invaded contrary to the constitution, it is the duty of the judiciary to shield him from oppression.’ "12 In Commonwealth ex rel. Tinder v. Werner , the court identified the history of its decisions related to striking down acts of the legislature that sought to restrict plaintiffs' rights to the redress of civil wrongs.13 In "Blair v. Williams14 and Lapsley v. Brashears ,15 [Kentucky's highest court] held unconstitutional an act of the legislature permitting a stay of two years on the debtor giving bond and security unless the creditor endorsed on his execution a willingness to accept notes on the Bank of Kentucky or the Bank of the Commonwealth of Kentucky ...."16 Those decisions "nearly destroyed this court:"

As was foreseen, those decisions produced very great exasperation and consequent denunciation of the court. The Judges were charged with arrogating supremacy over the popular will—their authority to declare void any act of the Legislature was denied, and they were denounced by the organs and stump orators of the dominant relief party as usurpers and self-made kings. No popular controversy, waged without bloodshed, was ever more absorbing or acrimonious than that which raged, like a hurricane, over Kentucky for about three years succeeding the promulgation of those judicial decisions.17

Some years later, after the "hard money" fight had subsided, the court in Johnson v. Higgins18 and Barkley v. Glover19 "held that Section 14 of the [Kentucky] Constitution was a limitation on the judicial branch of the government and not a limitation on the legislative branch, and that it prohibited the courts from arbitrarily delaying or denying to its citizens the administration of justice, but constituted no limitation upon...

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    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Kentucky
    • September 24, 2020
    ...noncompliant with Ky. Const. §§ 256 –57, implicitly overruling Funk v Fielder , 243 S.W.2d 474 (Ky. 1951) ); Commonwealth v. Claycomb ex rel. Claycomb , 566 S.W.3d 202 (Ky. 2018) (holding medical review panel act violated Ky. Const. § 14 ); Bevin v. Commonwealth ex rel. Beshear , 563 S.W.3d......
  • Yanakos v. UPMC
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • October 31, 2019
    ...damage awards and laws that require claims to be screened by medical experts before they can be filed in court. Kentucky v. Claycomb , 566 S.W.3d 202 (Ky. 2018) (invalidating a statute requiring submission of certain medical malpractice claims to a review panel before filing a civil action ......
  • Commonwealth v. Bredhold
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    • Supreme Court of Kentucky
    • March 26, 2020
    ...on its face, a court must find that the law is unconstitutional in all its applications. Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Claycomb by & through Claycomb , 566 S.W.3d 202, 210 (Ky. 2018) (citations omitted); Sabri v. United States , 541 U.S. 600, 609, 124 S.Ct. 1941, 158 L.Ed.2d 891 (2004). "It i......
  • Cameron v. Ball
    • United States
    • Kentucky Court of Appeals
    • December 1, 2023
    ... ... ALLISON BALL, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS KENTUCKY STATE TREASURER; ANDY BESHEAR, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS GOVERNOR OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY; HOLLY M. JOHNSON, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SECRETARY OF THE FINANCE & ADMINISTRATION CABINET; LEGISLATIVE RESEARCH COMMISSION; ... application. See Commonwealth v. Bredhold , 599 ... S.W.3d 409 (Ky. 2020) (citing Commonwealth v. Claycomb by ... &through Claycomb , 566 S.W.3d 202 (Ky. 2018) ... (citations omitted); Sabri v. United States , 541 ... U.S. 600, 609, 124 ... ...
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