NEWBORN TESTING: Cal. Supreme Court Rules State Not Liable For Inaccurate Results
The state of California is not "liable for inaccurate or incomplete results from mandatory health screening for newborns, even if errors lead to severe disabilities in children," the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday. The Los Angeles Times reports that "the high court unanimously overturned a Court of Appeals decision that would have allowed parents to collect damages from the state if they proved their case at trial." In the lawsuit, Claudia and Matthew Creason sued the state for what they said were faulty measuring standards for a test used to detect congenital hypothyroidism. Their daughter tested negative for the defect, but "was born without a thyroid" and as a result is confined to a wheelchair and suffers numerous health problems. The parents claimed that if the test applied different standards, their daughter's condition would have been detected and her disabilities could have been avoided through early treatment. But the court ruled that the screening program "is generally beneficial and would be severely undermined if it were vulnerable to litigation." The court noted that a "flood of litigation" could eliminate the program altogether. In 15 years of testing, from 1980 to 1995, California tested 7.4 million babies, finding 2,271 cases of congenital hypothyroidism.
Sorry, But No
Justice Joyce Kennard wrote: "The facts of this case are heart-rending, and the desire to afford the stricken child and her parents some measure of comfort and financial assistance is strong." Harrison Sommer, the Creasons' lawyers, said the ruling "is probably going to result in more Sierra Creasons down the road. I hope the state will make adjustments that need to be made in this program" (Dolan, 7/14). "I think the decision is more concerned with the potential for liability than with a just results," Sommer said. But Deputy Attorney General Joel Davis said, "In setting up this testing program, the state was trying to do good. If the court were to impose on the state the same duty a doctor owes a patient, the potential liability would be astronomical, the entire program would come crashing down and everyone would suffer."
The San Diego Daily Transcript reports that the "controversy dates back to 1977, when the [state] Legislature passed the Hereditary Disorders Act," which required that all newborns be tested for genetic disorders. Sierra's disorder went undetected because she did not have a high level of a certain thyroid hormone associated with her condition (DiEdoardo, 7/13). The Times reports that Sommer argued the child's doctor "would have been alerted to a possible problem if the state had reported the exact laboratory values rather than just giving a negative results." But in the ruling, Justice Ming Chin wrote that state doctors have the authority to set standards for positive and negative results (7/14).