(CN) – A case involving an Idaho doctor accused of using his own semen to artificially inseminate a patient will move forward despite statute-of-limitations concerns, a federal judge ruled Friday.
U.S. District Judge David Nye consolidated claims related to the artificial insemination — which included fraud, emotional distress and lack of informed consent — all under a single claim of medical malpractice. Nye noted that the plaintiffs must still clear the “high hurdle” imposed by the statute of limitations.
“The facts of this case—if construed as true—paint a picture of troubling conduct carried out by a person in a position of trust,” Nye wrote in his 35-page order. “Plaintiffs’ anger concerning the alleged misconduct is understandable and while there may be valid public policy arguments to be made, each claim must meet strict legal requirements to survive a motion to dismiss.”
The case dates back to 1980, when Howard Fowler and Sally Ashby, an Idaho Falls couple struggling to conceive, visited Dr. Gerald Mortimer for help.
Mortimer diagnosed Ashby with an inverted uterus and Fowler with a low sperm count, recommending a procedure that would supplement Fowler’s sperm with that of an anonymous donor.
The couple took the doctor’s advice and successfully conceived and gave birth to a girl, Kelli Rowlette, in May 1981. The couple has since had another child, divorced and gone their separate ways.
In 2017, Rowlette submitted her DNA to the genealogy company Ancestry.com to learn more about her heritage – and in July 2017, she received results that indicated she shared DNA with Mortimer, predicting a parent-child relationship between the two.
The match led Rowlette and her parents to conclude that Mortimer inserted his own semen into the artificial insemination process 37 years ago, and the whole family submitted civil claims in federal court in March.
On Friday, Nye ruled all of the claims besides medical malpractice must be dismissed.
“Litigants—and Courts in Idaho—have taken the approach that it is simply easier to have a single medical malpractice claim rather than multiple claims that have to meet the medical malpractice standards because they arose out of the provisions of health care,” Nye explained in his ruling. “This—coupled with the fact that the statute is broad enough to encompass anything related to professional health care services—essentially mandates that all causes of action that arise out of the provision of health care be categorized as medical malpractice and all other individual claims be dismissed.”
Nye also dismissed Rowlette as a plaintiff, since she was not Mortimer’s patient and therefore could not claim medical malpractice.
Although Fowler and Ashby’s claims moved forward, the case’s long-term prospects still appear dim.
To escape the statute of limitations issues, the plaintiffs must claim they only suffered damage upon discovering that Mortimer was the father of their daughter — an argument Nye said “misses the mark.”
“While plaintiffs never suspected that Dr. Mortimer was the donor, they understood that 85% of the sperm used in the procedure was Fowler’s but 15% came from another individual,” Nye wrote. “In short, they understood Rowlette’s paternity was not settled.”
Still, the plaintiffs are now cleared to pursue discovery and move onto the next phase of litigation, where the statute of limitations issue will likely be settled.