Monday, May 4, 2009
Court Rules Detainee Can Be Held Liable For Hospital Treatment
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
A 78-year old Alzheimer’s dementia patient charged with murdering his wife and committed to a state hospital as a pretrial detainee may be held liable for the resultant $200,000 hospital bill, the Fifth District Court of Appeal held Friday.
Reversing the decision of Kern Superior Court Commissioner Louie L. Vega, the panel ruled that pretrial detainees are not similarly situated to inmates transferred to state hospital for treatment while incarcerated, and so allowing the state to seek reimbursement from the conservancy estate of Thomas Lee Edde did not violate equal protection.
Edde was charged with murdering his wife after an argument in September 2005. Edde was found incompetent to stand trial and ordered committed to Patton State Hospital for treatment. Criminal proceedings were then suspended.
He spent 16 months at Patton before the criminal trial court concluded that it was unlikely his competency would be restored. The judge ordered that Edde be released from custody and placed in a secured residential facility, but retained criminal jurisdiction and the criminal proceedings remained suspended.
After the murder, John Denny was appointed administrator of Edde’s wife estate. Denny filed a Petition to Determine Felonious and Intentional Killing and a civil wrongful death action on behalf of the decedent’s estate and the decedent’s four adult children.
He negotiated a settlement of these claims with Edde’s daughter, who was the conservator of Edde’s estate, but both the Kern County public guardian and the state Department of Developmental Services objected to the proposed settlement.
The probate court later removed Edde’s daughter as conservator and appointed the public guardian in her place. Denny and the public guardian then negotiated an alternative settlement.
Meanwhile, the department filed a petition for an order that the conservator reimburse it $200,423.67 for the cost of Edde’s care and objected to the alternative settlement. Denny and the public guardian objected to the department’s petition on equal protection grounds.
One hearing was held on the petition and the objection to the alternative settlement, but the matters were not consolidated. In separate orders, Vega approved the alternative settlement and denied the department’s claim for payment.
The department only appealed the denial of its petition for payment, arguing that Welfare and Institutions Code Sec. 7275 granted the state an absolute and unconditional statutorily authorized claim against Edde’s estate for reimbursement.
Sec. 7275 provides that the estate of a patient in a state hospital for the mentally disordered “shall be liable for his care, support, and maintenance in a state institution of which he is a patient.”
But Vega found that as applied to Edde, Sec. 7275 was unconstitutional because it denied Edde equal protection.
By forcing Edde to pay for his care, the public guardian asserted, the state was unfairly asking a small segment of society, specifically pretrial detainees, to pay for the protection of society, which should be a public-borne cost, as it is with inmates transferred to a state hospital for treatment while incarcerated.
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Rebecca A. Wiseman explained that it is the state’s responsibility to administer the criminal justice system, so that once an inmate is convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison, the state bears the responsibility of caring for that inmate.
In order to fulfill that responsibility, Wiseman noted that the state may transfer inmates to state hospitals for care and treatment, but that the inmate “is still serving a sentence in state prison and is confined pursuant to a judgment” during the time spent at the hospital.
As a pretrial detainee committed to a state hospital is not being punished for a crime, she reasoned, such detainees are not similarly situated to inmates
Even if individuals in these two categories were similarly situated, the Legislature had a rational basis for distinguishing them, Wiseman added, emphasizing that detainees are not inmates and are not under the authority of the department of corrections because the criminal trial court still retains jurisdiction over detainees.
Further, Wiseman explained detainees like Edde who have not been convicted of a crime and adjudged as incompetent have assigned public guardians who owe them a fiduciary duty to represent their best interests, which inmates do not receive.
“Although reasonable minds may differ regarding whether this distinction is the best policy, the scheme adopted by the Legislature need not be perfect—just a rational one,” she wrote, concluding that there is no equal protection violation in the legislative determination that the estates of individuals committed to state hospitals as pretrial detainees may be liable for the cost of their treatment.
Justices Gene M. Gomes and Betty L. Dawson joined Wiseman in her opinion, ordering the matter remanded for further proceedings on any remaining challenges asserted by the public guardian.
The case is In re Conservatorship of Edde, F055054.
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