Appeals court sides with hospitals on the right to file suit

Minors who turn 18 can be held liable if parents won't pay

November 16, 2001|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

In a boon to hospitals, patients can be held liable for bills for emergency care they received when they were minors if their parents refused to pay, a divided Maryland Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

"This ruling is critically important for hospitals. It assures a hospital of the right to effectuate payment in a case of this nature, where they are in a position of having to render medical services without a full financial disclosure," said Herbert A. Thaler Jr., lawyer for the hospitals.

As a practical matter, he said, the 4-3 ruling largely affects people who turn 18, legal adulthood, within three years of receiving emergency medical care that their parents refused to pay for. The hospital has three years from treatment to file suit.

Writing for the majority of the state's highest court, Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. said that while the ruling might seem harsh on a patient, it was sound public policy. Judges, he said, considered "not placing hospitals and other emergency health care providers in a situation where apparently financially able individuals may avoid paying for necessary medical treatment through a contrivance similar to that demonstrated on the record of this case."

The ruling stems from a St. Mary's County case in which a 16-year-old Mechanicsville girl received medical care at Prince George's Hospital Center after a 1997 car accident. Her father, or grandfather, had received payment from an insurer to cover medical bills, and used it to buy Michelle M. Schmidt, the patient, a car, court documents said.

When she turned 18, the hospital sued her for the unpaid $1,756 bill. Neither she nor her father could be reached yesterday.

"I know I am right," said Edward John Skeens, Schmidt's attorney, who argued that it was illegal to wait for the patient to turn 18 to sue her. The hospital should have sued her through her father, or it could have sued her father as her responsible parent, he argued.

"I'll probably file for a reconsideration," he said.

The court's minority opinion, by Judge Irma S. Raker, said the majority opinion can hold a child responsible for parental choices.

She wrote that it failed to explain what constituted parental "unwillingness" to pay.

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