Supreme Court Rejects Stale Constitutional Process Challenge to Wrongful Birth Statute

The passage of 22 years precluded a process challenge to an act containing provisions that barred causes of action for wrongful birth, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in Sernovitz v. Dershaw, __ A.3d __ (No. 123, 124 MAP 2014, filed Nov. 18, 2015). In 2010, the plaintiffs in this case, Rebecca and Lawrence Sernovitz, sued their physicians after their son was born with a genetic disorder. The plaintiffs asserted a claim for wrongful birth, arguing that the defendants negligently misinformed them about the results of pre-natal genetic testing. The plaintiffs further contended that Pennsylvania’s statute prohibiting wrongful birth claims, 42 Pa. C.S. §8305(a), was void because it was enacted as part of Act 47 of 1988, which violated the single-subject rule of Article III, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The trial court rejected the Article III challenge; sustained the defendants’ preliminary objections invoking Section 8305(a); and dismissed the complaint. The plaintiffs appealed.

A three-judge panel of the Superior Court reversed, holding that Act 47 violated the single-subject rule. Sernovitz v. Dershaw, 57 A.3d 1254 (Pa. Super. 2012). Rather than striking the entire act, the Court invalidated Section 8305 and three other provisions because they were unrelated to the act’s principal topic of “post-trial matters in criminal cases.” The defendants, along with the General Assembly as intervenor, requested reargument en banc, arguing that the doctrine of laches should have barred a challenge to Act 47 two decades after its enactment. Reargument was denied and the Supreme Court allowed an appeal.

In a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice Saylor, the high court reversed. Assuming without deciding that Act 47 violated the single-subject rule, the Court focused on appellants’ argument that the 22-year delay in challenging the act precluded relief. The Court agreed. In doing so, the Court noted that appellants’ use of the “laches” rubric was imprecise, since a laches defense requires that the complaining party failed to institute a cause of action in a timely manner. In the case at bar, plaintiffs had diligently commenced their action soon after the alleged injury. The Court explained that where, as here, the public and the government have relied on a statute for more than 20 years, a presumption arises that any process challenge is too stale to be cognizable even if the challengers exercised reasonable diligence. Invalidating all of Act 47’s provisions retroactive to 1988, the Court observed, “would be unduly disruptive to the orderly administration of justice in Pennsylvania.” Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded for dismissal of plaintiffs’ complaint.

By | 2015-12-01T13:23:41+00:00 December 8th, 2015|Categories: Constitutional Law, Government Law|Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |Comments Off on Supreme Court Rejects Stale Constitutional Process Challenge to Wrongful Birth Statute

About the Author:

PBI
The Pennsylvania Bar Institute is PA's premier provider of continuing legal education and reference materials. Our mission is to provide Pennsylvania lawyers with information that is timely, practical, cost effective, and of the highest possible quality. We are the nonprofit arm of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.