Rohrabaugh v. Wagoner, 1280S461

Decision Date29 December 1980
Docket NumberNo. 1280S461,1280S461
Citation413 N.E.2d 891,274 Ind. 661
PartiesKimberley Kay ROHRABAUGH by her next friend Rosa Rohrabaugh Cross, Appellant, v. George W. WAGONER, M.D. and Jerry Like, D.O., Appellees.
CourtIndiana Supreme Court

Charles L. Martin, Boonville, for appellant.

William E. Statham, Evansville, for appellee George Wagoner; Clark, Statham, McCray, Clark & Thomas, Evansville, of counsel.

Robert H. Hahn, Evansville, for appellee Jerry Like; Bamberger, Foreman, Oswald & Hahn, Evansville, of counsel.

DeBRULER, Justice.

This appeal involves a challenge to the constitutionality of the statute of limitations portions of the Medical Malpractice Act of 1975. The Attorney General has filed a brief defending the statute. The joint petition of the parties to transfer under Ind.App.R. 4(A)(10) is granted. The petition for oral argument is denied.

Appellant, a minor between the ages of six and eighteen years at the time of the institution of her action and at the time of the alleged wrongful acts constituting malpractice, brought her malpractice suit against two health care providers who had separately diagnosed and treated a growth at her waistline known as a hemangioma. The action was instituted in 1979, more than two years after the effective day of the Act and the dates of the alleged wrongful acts. Finding Ind. Code § 16-9.5-3-1 and Ind. Code § 16-9.5-3-2 constitutional and applicable to the case, the trial court dismissed.

Appellant contends that the two year limitation upon malpractice actions denies minors equal protection of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment and Art. I, § 23, of the Indiana Constitution and their remedy by due course of law guaranteed by Art. I, § 12, of the Indiana Constitution. The two statutory provisions involved here state:

Ind. Code 16-9.5-3-1:

"No claim, whether in contract or tort, may be brought against a health care provider based upon professional services or health care rendered or which should have been rendered unless filed within two years from the date of the alleged act, omission or neglect except that a minor under the full age of six years shall have until his eighth birthday in which to file. This section applies to all persons regardless of minority or other legal disability."

Ind. Code § 16-9.5-3-2:

"Notwithstanding the provisions of IC 1971, 16-9.5-1-7, any claim by a minor or other person under legal disability against a health care provider stemming from professional services or health care rendered, whether in contract or tort, based on an alleged act, omission or neglect which occurred prior to the effective date (July 1, 1975) of this article, shall be brought only within the longer of:

(a) Two years of the effective date of this article; or

(b) The period described in section 1 of this chapter."

It is generally conceded that statutes of limitation may be enacted within the sovereign power of a state and are not per se unconstitutional. Short v. Texaco, Inc., (1980) Ind., 406 N.E.2d 625. The purpose of such statutes is to require prompt action and assure fairness to the defendant.

"Statutes of limitation find their justification in necessity and convenience rather than in logic. They represent expedients, rather than principles. They are practical and pragmatic devices to spare the courts from litigation of stale claims, and the citizen from being put to his defense after memories have faded, witnesses have died or disappeared, and evidence has been lost." Chase Securities Corporation v. Donaldson, (1945) 325 U.S. 304, 314, 65 S.Ct. 1137, 1142, 89 L.Ed. 1628.

These statutory provisions before us establish a two year statute of limitation in malpractice cases and obligates infants between the ages of six and twenty-one to institute their actions within that time. This Court held in Sherfey v. City of Brazil, (1937) 213 Ind. 493, 13 N.E.2d 568, that the Legislature is not under mandate from the constitution to suspend the obligation of statutes of limitation in the case of infancy or incapacity. That holding is fatal to appellant's challenge to this statute pursuant to Art. I, § 12, of our state Constitution.

These statutory provisions before us require children between the ages of six and twenty-one to institute their medical malpractice claims within the same period of time as adults. This requirement also gives rise to appellant's contention that it is unconstitutionally discriminatory. Equal protection analysis requires strict judicial scrutiny of legislative classifications only when the classification impinges impermissibly upon the exercise of a fundamental right or operates to the peculiar disadvantage of a suspect class. San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, (1973) 411 U.S. 1, 93 S.Ct. 1278, 36 L.Ed.2d 16.

Appellant argues that there is a fundamental right to file suit or seek redress in the courts guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment and Art. I, §§ 12 and 23, of the Indiana Constitution. A statute of limitation operates by barring a claim after the expiration of a period of time for asserting it. The bar is conceived as cutting off the availability of a remedy or in the alternative as limiting the substantive right which gives rise to a claim. Chase Securities Corporation v. Donaldson, supra. Neither conception carries with it the idea that the bar infringes upon a fundamental right to seek redress in court. The statute does not prevent the timely prosecution in court of any claim. The bar does not fall until a reasonable time for filing has expired. No case has been cited which has held that a statute of limitation such as the one before us affects a fundamental right and for that reason is to be subjected to strict judicial scrutiny. Qualifications of this sort upon the access to the courts in civil matters do not require the state to furnish a compelling interest in justification. Ortwein v. Schwab, (1972) 410 U.S. 656, 93 S.Ct. 1172, 35 L.Ed.2d 572; U. S. v. Kras, (1972) 409 U.S. 434, 93 S.Ct. 631, 34 L.Ed.2d 626; Pittman v. United States, (9th Cir. 1965) 341 F.2d 739.

A suspect class is one, "saddled with such disabilities, or subjected to such a history of purposeful unequal treatment, or relegated to such a position of political powerlessness as to command extraordinary protection from the majoritarian political process." Rodriguez, supra. The class identified by appellant as suspect is comprised of children from the ages of six through eighteen. Generally, defining a class by age does not call for strict judicial scrutiny. Massachusetts Bd. of Retirement v. Murgia, (1976) 427 U.S. 307, 96 S.Ct. 2562, 49 L.Ed.2d 520. Historically, the legal position of children in society has been mixed. During the early part of this century children within this age group were exploited by employers and their own families as sources of labor, and congressional attempts to alleviate their hardship were rebuked in court. Hammer v. Dagenhart, (1918) 247 U.S. 251, 38 S.Ct. 529, 62 L.Ed. 1101. More recently child labor laws have been upheld, and mandatory school attendance laws and laws protecting children from abuse have been enacted. Cf. United States v. Darby, (1940) 312 U.S. 100, 61 S.Ct. 451, 85 L.Ed. 609. Children are not required by law to have hunting and fishing licenses, and are commonly charged less by the business community than adults for admission to theaters and for public accommodations and travel. Historically they have been exempted from conscription into the armed services. On the other hand they are limited in their right to operate vehicles, to vote, and to marry. Illegitimate children are indeed a suspect class. Levy v. Louisiana, (1968) 391 U.S. 68, 88 S.Ct. 1509, 20 L.Ed.2d 436. Unlike illegitimacy, childhood is a stage out of which millions of persons inevitably pass in an unending flow, day after day. Children become adults and are empowered. The laws respecting children have in the main in recent years been based upon the premise that children are undergoing physical and psychological growth and during this process they are limited in their capacity for making those evaluations thought necessary to full participation in the political, economic, and social life of the community. As in the case of the elderly, the legal...

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