UPDATES & ANALYSIS

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State statute requiring a signature under oath means what it says, Iowa Supreme Court holds

by Rox Laird | May 31, 2024

The Iowa Code requires that a plaintiff who brings medical malpractice claims in state court serve the defendant with an affidavit signed by an expert witness regarding the merits of the claim that the medical provider was negligent. The statute requires that the affidavit be signed under oath obligating the witness to be truthful.

In a unanimous ruling in Miller v. Catholic Health Initiatives handed down May 24, the Iowa Supreme Court held that an expert witness’ signed — but not sworn – statement regarding a medical malpractice claim filed in Polk County District Court did not comply with the statute. The decision for the Court was written by Justice Thomas Waterman.

Darrin P. Miller sued Catholic Health Initiatives as executor of the estate of his deceased wife alleging emergency room physicians and nurses breached the standard of care in negligently performing an esophageal intubation. Miller served the defendants with a document from an expert witness stating the treatment of the decedent fell below the appropriate standard of care. The document was signed by the expert witness but did not include an affidavit, sworn oath, or any declaration that it was signed under penalty of perjury.

Catholic Health Initiatives filed a motion to dismiss on grounds that the unsworn document did not comply with the statutory affidavit requirement, and that the expert witness was unqualified to testify against the defendants because she was not licensed to practice in the same or substantially similar field as required under section 147.139. The district court ruled that the expert’s signed but unsworn document substantially complied with the statute and that the expert’s qualifications satisfied the statutory requirement.

The Supreme Court, in its May 24 decision, disagreed that the expert witness substantially complied with the statute, but it did not address the issue of whether the expert’s qualifications met the requirements of the statute. The Court reversed and remanded the case for dismissal of the medical malpractice claims with prejudice.

The Court noted that section 147.140 six times uses the word “affidavit,” which is defined in Iowa Code section 622.85 as “a written declaration made under oath … before any person authorized to administer oaths within or without the state.” And, section 147.140 “unambiguously” requires that the expert personally sign the certificate of merit under oath within 60 days of when the defendant files its answer.

Because the document from the expert witness in this case was not signed under oath within the 60-day period, the Court concluded, it did not comply with the statute.

Nor did the expert witness substantially comply with the “reasonable objective” of the certificate of merit statute, the Court said, which is to give the defendant health professional the opportunity to “arrest a baseless action” early in the process.

“A contrary holding would undermine many Iowa statutes requiring sworn statements or verifications,” Justice Waterman wrote. “If we held a signed but unsworn letter substantially complied with section 147.140’s affidavit requirement, how could district courts enforce other statutes, such as Iowa Code section 598.13, requiring parties in marital dissolution cases to file financial affidavits? Would parties be more likely to omit assets or falsely state income if they could avoid signing under oath or penalty of perjury and thereby avoid criminal liability exposure?”

 

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