J.M. of Morriston asks, "My husband, who is in his mid-fifties, had a serious medical incident occur several months ago which required me to call for emergency assistance. When the EMT`s arrived, my husband was unconscious. The EMT`s called for a helicopter but by the time the helicopter got there he had regained consciousness and was able to talk without difficulty. He didn`t think he needed to go in the helicopter to the hospital but they insisted he should do so, especially since it was on its way. The flight took an hour.
At the hospital, they got him to sign a piece of paper saying that he agreed to pay the bill for the helicopter, but he didn`t know what it would be at the time and they never told him. He`s fine now, and he was discharged from the hospital that day, but we received a bill in the mail a few weeks later and I about had a heart attack! It was for over $21,000!
We submitted it to our insurance company and they only paid $3,000 towards the bill, saying that was all that was appropriate. Now my husband has been sued for the difference of $18,000. We`re not rich people and we can`t afford to pay that. What can we do?
You ask a very interesting question, and given our aging population and the seemingly never-ending rise in medical costs, what happened to your husband is something that could happen to any of us at any time. First off, I am glad your husband is well. Secondly, you will be relieved to know that YOU are not, under Florida law, liable for your husband`s medical bill, as long as you didn`t sign anything.
On the other hand, your husband is financially responsible for some amount of money, but the exact amount is questionable. He must answer the complaint filed against him and find out what the judicial system has to say about that situation.
Please understand and make no mistake about this...if your husband doesn`t timely answer the complaint a default judgment will be entered against him which will include attorney`s fees and costs, plus pre-judgment interest and post-judgment interest, which will be well in excess of $20,000 and neither you nor he wants that to happen.
However, even when he does answer the complaint he will have to admit that he received the medical treatment and the helicopter ride, and that he signed a document, or contract, obligating him to pay the bill.
So, it seems to me his only argument is that when he signed the contract he was not possessed of his full faculties and didn`t fully understand what he was signing. Most importantly, he NEVER would have agreed to pay $21,000 for that service if he had known that was what the charge would be. There are circumstances, however, where life is at stake, when one might well pay that amount, and more, to live. I do not wish to suggest that the services provided by the helicopter medical personnel are not valuable or necessary. The only issue being discussed in this column is the cost of those services.
That said, I think a good argument can be made, especially to a jury, that $21,000 is excessive. If the bill was reasonable and proper, why didn`t the insurance company pay it? Your husband may have to fight the case, and spend some money doing it, but since he didn`t sign a contract saying that he AGREED to pay $21,000 and he had no IDEA it could possibly cost that much, or that his insurance company wouldn`t pay it, I think it becomes an issue for a jury, or judge, to decide what the fair value of those services truly is. According to Google, renting a small jet plane, with a pilot, would cost about $3,000 for an hour, which was the length of your husband`s flight, so it`s going to be difficult for the helicopter company to justify what would seem to be an outrageous charge.
I have no doubt that the helicopter company will agree to settle the case for much less than what they are asking for, but even at 50% that`s an awful lot of money. To me, the saddest part of the problems we have with the delivery of medical services in our country is that those who have no insurance truly have no ability to pay for them and even those with insurance, like you and your husband, may THINK you`re covered, when you`re not, as happened in this case. When a catastrophe occurs it can, quite literally, cause financial ruin.
I hope I have answered your question, J.M., and I hope that your husband is able to reach a reasonable resolution of the lawsuit filed against him by the insurance company without enormous financial loss. Good luck.
Any readers with specific legal questions for this "Ask a Lawyer" column are invited to submit those questions to the Editor of this newspaper who will pass it along to the attorney. If you need assistance with a consumer matter, such as an unfair and deceptive collection practice, or garnishment of wages, a mortgage foreclosure or other such things, and you cannot afford an attorney, call the Legal Services office closest to you, which provides free legal assistance to qualified individuals, or call the Florida Bar Referral service at 1-800-342-8011. I wish you good luck in obtaining access to our legal system, no matter what your income and asset level might be.
The foregoing was written by attorney Pierce Kelley, who is a member of the Florida Bar Association. The contents reflect his personal opinions and beliefs.