Iowa Supreme Court to hold evening argument in case involving the death of a rock star and the constitutional rights of the unborn

By: Rox Laird on February 15th, 2016

Tomorrow, the Iowa Supreme Court will hold a special, evening session to hear oral arguments in The Estate of Paul Gray v. Daniel Baldi.  The Iowa Supreme Court holds one evening session in Des Moines each year, and this one, in particular, is made for prime time: The lawsuit is about a rock star who died of an accidental drug overdose; the lawsuit is against an embattled pain doctor; and one of the legal issues in the lawsuit is whether an unborn child has constitutional rights. 

In 2010, Paul Gray, a member and founder of the internationally known Des Moines-based rock group Slipknot, died of an accidental drug overdose.  At the time, Gray had been taking pain medications prescribed by Des Moines doctor Daniel J. Baldi.  Baldi would later become the subject of an Iowa medical licensing board investigation for improperly prescribing medications and be charged with involuntary manslaughter for the death of his patients.  (Baldi was acquitted of those charges in 2014.)

In 2014, nearly four years after Gray’s death, his widow, Brenna Gray, sued Baldi for medical malpractice and his daughter (who was in the womb at the time of Gray’s death) sued Baldi  for loss of consortium.  Baldi moved to dismiss the case, arguing that it wasn’t timely (i.e., that it wasn’t filed within the two-year statute of limitations) and that Gray’s daughter didn’t have a claim because she was not yet born on the date of Gray’s death.  Polk County District Judge Dennis Stoval agreed and granted the dismissal.

Brenna Gray and her daughter are now appealing that decision to the Iowa Supreme Court.

The main issue is one of timing.  Under current Iowa Supreme Court case law, wrongful-death cases are treated differently than wrongful-injury cases for statute-of-limitations purposes. In death cases, the clock begins ticking at the time of death; in cases involving injuries, by contrast, the clock begins when the patient discovers that he or she is injured, which is sometimes well after the medical procedure that did the injuring.

Brenna Gray says that she didn’t know at the time of her husband’s death that Baldi’s alleged negligence was to blame, and she argues that the statute of limitations shouldn’t have started until she did know.  In other words, she thinks that wrongful-death cases should be treated the same as wrongful-injury cases.

Dr. Baldi and the medical group defendants argue that state law and Iowa Supreme Court precedent are clear that the statute of limitations begins at the time of death. They say the legislature intended that medical liability end after a limited period, and any inquiry into possible medical negligence is triggered at the time of death.

The statute of limitations issue is different for Gray’s daughter.  Iowa law states that a “minor who was under the age of eight years” can bring a lawsuit related to medical malpractice, regardless of when that malpractice occurred, so long as the child does so before her tenth birthday.   Gray’s daughter is not yet ten, so Gray argues that she can bring the lawsuit.   But Baldi argues, and the district court agreed, that the statute applies only to children who were born at the time of the allegedly malpractice.  Gray’s daughter was still in the womb, so she doesn’t have a claim, Baldi argues. 

As a backup, Gray, on behalf of her daughter, argues that it would be unconstitutional to treat the born and unborn differently.  So if Iowa’s medical malpractice statute really is limited to children who are already born (as opposed to children who are in the womb at the time of the negligent act), then Gray contends that the statue violates the Equal Protection Clause.

The parties’ briefs are also available on the court’s website, and the public is encouraged to attend the argument, which starts at 7 p.m.

Iowa Supreme Court oral arguments are always open to the public and livestreamed on the Internet, but ordinary sessions held during business hours are inconvenient for many who want to see the justices in the flesh. Tuesday’s evening session in Des Moines is part of the court’s efforts to be more transparent. 

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On Brief

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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