Friday, April 10, 2009
Court Tosses Order Requiring Widow to Pay Husband’s Medical Bills
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Sixth District Court of Appeal has thrown out an order requiring a widow to pay nearly $587,000 in hospital expenses incurred by her husband before his death.
Reversing because the widow only signed her husband’s admission paperwork on one of two occasions, the panel ruled in an unpublished opinion Tuesday that Eunice Cho’s separate property could not be used to satisfy her husband’s debt.
Cho’s husband, Peter Cho, was admitted to the emergency department at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center on Aug. 16, 2000. Eunice Cho signed the admission paperwork, which contained an agreement that she would pay for all services rendered in accordance with the regular rates established for such services by the hospital.
She later completed an application for the hospital’s “Ability to Pay Determination Program” with the aid of a Korean interpreter.
When Peter Cho was discharged on August 23, he had incurred a hospital bill of almost $49,000. He returned to the hospital on August 25 to arrange for surgery and follow-up care and signed a second set of admission papers, which his wife did not sign.
The second hospital stay resulted in over $532,000 in charges, and Peter Cho died at the hospital Sept. 21, 2000.
In May of the following year, Eunice Cho sued the hospital for wrongful death and medical malpractice, while the hospital cross-complained for reimbursement and breach of contract. The two actions were bifurcated, and a jury found no negligence by the hospital on the complaint.
The cross-complaint was tried by the court in July 2005, and Eunice Cho argued that neither she nor her husband understood English well enough to understand the admission paperwork or that it obligated them to pay such a large sum
Although Cho had been accompanied by a bilingual friend on Aug. 16, 2000, she said no one had explained the contents of the paperwork and that she mistakenly believed she had to sign the form for her husband to be treated.
Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Joseph Huber found Cho liable for her husband’s hospital expenses pursuant to the payment agreement in both sets of admission paperwork, and ordered her to pay the hospital the full amount for both of her husband’s stays.
On appeal, Cho argued her assent to the first payment agreement was due to excusable neglect, but Justice Franklin D. Elia explained that substantial evidence supported Huber’s rejection of Cho’s proffered excuse.
He said the presence of the bilingual friend provided a basis to infer the friend was available to translate the documents, adding that it was incumbent on Cho to request help in understanding the financial agreement if she required such assistance.
But Elia concluded Huber erred in assigning the full cost of Peter Cho’s second hospital stay to Eunice Cho.
Cho contended under Family Code Sec. 910(a)—which provides that the community estate is liable for a debt incurred by either spouse during marriage—that her liability was limited to the value of the community estate at the time of her husband’s death.
‘Necessaries of Life’
The hospital argued that Family Code Sec. 914, which holds a married person liable for the debt of her spouse when that debt was incurred for the spouse’s “necessaries of life”—allowed Eunice Cho’s separate property to be used to satisfy Peter Cho’s debt.
But Elia noted that Sec. 914 was not pleaded in the cross-complaint or cited during the liability portion of trial, and that only the Chos’ community estate was subject to collection absent a factual finding that the charges were attributable to Peter Cho’s “necessaries of life.”
He further explained that Welfare and Institutions Code Sec. 17300, which requires reimbursement to the county to aid rendered if a “responsible relative” of the recipient of such aid has the financial means to pay, was an improper alterative basis for the judgment insofar as the hospital made no determination of the Chos’ ability to pay under Eunice Cho’s application.
Presiding Justice Conrad L. Rushing and Justice Eugene M. Premo joined Elia in his opinion.
The case is Cho v. County of Santa Clara, H032766.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company