Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands, Division of St. Thomas and St. John
Seitz, Garth, and Higginbotham, Circuit Judges.
The Government of the Virgin Islands, one of two defendants in this malpractice action, appeals from the district court's interlocutory order holding that plaintiff need not comply with the claim filing requirements of the Virgin Islands Tort Claims Act, 33 V.I.C. § 3401 et seq. The district court certified the order under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), and we granted permission to appeal.
This appeal requires us to consider the relationship between two statutes enacted by the Virgin Islands legislature: the Virgin Islands Tort Claims Act, 33 V.I.C. § 3401 et seq. (Equity 1967 & Supp. 1983), enacted in 1971, and the Virgin Islands Health Care Provider Malpractice Act, 27 V.I.C. § 166 et seq. (Equity Supp. 1983), enacted in 1975.
Henry Saludes, plaintiff, allegedly suffered injuries in December 1981 as a result of the malpractice of Dr. Evelyn Ramos, a physician at the Knud Hansen Memorial Hospital in the Virgin Islands. In compliance with the claim requirements of the Medical Malpractice Act, 27 V.I.C. § 166i(b), Saludes filed a proposed complaint with the Government's Medical Malpractice Action Review Committee in May 1982, prior to commencing his action in the district court. The proposed complaint named as defendants Dr. Ramos and the Government of the Virgin Islands, the owner and operator of the hospital. Dr. Ramos and the Government responded with a proposed answer to the complaint, also as required by the Medical Malpractice Act, 27 V.I.C. § 166i(c). The proposed answer asserted, inter alia, the affirmative defense that Saludes had failed to comply with the claim filing requirements of the Tort Claims Act, 33 V.I.C. § 3409.
In November 1982, Saludes filed the present action against Ramos and the Government in the district court.*fn1 Apparently conceding his failure to comply with the claim filing requirements of the Tort Claims Act, Saludes on the same day filed a motion with the district court to have this failure excused. The asserted ground for the motion was Saludes's good faith belief that compliance with the Medical Malpractice Act made it unnecessary for him to comply with the Tort Claims Act. The district court denied Saludes's motion as "moot" and held that plaintiffs was not required to comply with the Torts Claims Act in his malpractice action against the Government. In so holding, the court overruled its earlier decision in Davis v. Knud-Hansen Memorial Hospital, 1978 St. T. Supp. 217 (D.V.I. 1978), reversed on other grounds, 635 F.2d 179 (3d Cir. 1980), which had required a malpractice claimant against the Government to comply with both the Medical Malpractice Act and the Tort Claims Act. We permitted the Government to appeal the district court's order and must now decide whether the court's ruling on the relationship between these two statutes was correct.*fn2
Before reaching the merits of this appeal we must decide what standard of review to apply. Because the issue is a legal one, we would ordinarily exercise plenary review. Plaintiff argues, however, that a more deferential standard is appropriate. Plaintiff's argument is based on a series of Supreme Court decisions from the 1930s and 1940s in which the Court held that a federal court of appeals reviewing the decision of a territorial appellate court on a matter of territorial law should only reverse if there is "manifest error". See, e.g., De Castro v. Board of Commissioners, 322 U.S. 451, 64 S. Ct. 1121, 88 L. Ed. 1384 (1944) (reviewing federal circuit court's affirmance of decision by Puerto Rico Supreme Court). Chief Justice Stone explained the rationale for this deference in his opinion in De Castro, stating that a federal appellate court has
the peculiarly delicate task of examining and appraising the local law in its setting, with the sympathetic disposition to safeguard in matters of local concern the adaptability of the law to local practices and needs. It is one which ordinarily cannot be performed summarily or without full argument and examination of the legal questions involved. But if in the light of such an examination it is found that the rule adopted by the local tribunal is an intelligible one, not shown to be out of harmony with local law or practice, it is not to be rejected because we think a better could have been devised or because we find it out of harmony with our own traditional system of law and statutory construction.
Each of the Supreme Court's decisions on this issue has involved a review of a decision by an insular court of appeals, either the Hawaii or the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. Both territories, at the time of the decisions, had separate, non-federal judicial systems. Appeals from these courts were taken to the federal court of appeals. In its De Castro decision the Court made clear that its adoption of the deferential standard was based on the need to respect the insular system and its expertise in local law and custom. This deference, according to the Supreme Court, is comparable to the deference paid to the state judicial ...