Hospitals can find comfort in the protections offered by the Health Care Services Lien Act, which allow them to assert a lien against recovering patient’s judgment.
But what happens when a hospital seeks to execute a lien against a judgment entered in favor of a minor whose interests are protected by the right of Married Persons Act (Family Expense Act), 750 ILCS 65/5 (West 2012), which is designed to limit the child’s obligation for medical expenses?
The Illinois Supreme Court recently dealt with this conflict, which held creditors may assert their lien against the minor’s judgment.
The case Akeen Manago By and Through April Pritchett involved a minor plaintiff who was injured in 2005 while riding on the roof of an elevator owned by the Chicago Housing Authority, who was treated at John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital, a public hospital.
In 2009, Cook County filed a lien on behalf of Stroger Hospital per the Health Care Services Lien Act, 770 ILCS 23/1, et seq. (West 2012), for the minor’s unpaid medical bills. The Act allows hospitals to assert a lien against any cause of action brought by the patient, limiting the provider’s recovery to 40 percent of the verdict or settlement.
Following a bench trial in 2011, the trial court entered an award of $200,000 for the plaintiff for non-economic damages. Because the complaint did not include a count under the Family Expenses Act and because the child turned 18 while the case was pending, the Court did not enter an award for medical expenses. In a post-trial motion, the trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion to extinguish the Stroger Hospital lien. The hospital appealed the trial court’s decision.
The Appellate Court held Stroger Hospital could enforce its lien. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration. Following oral argument, the Appellate Court withdrew its prior opinion and affirmed the trial court’s decision to extinguish Stroger Hospital’s lien. Id.
The Healthcare Services Lien Act, the Appellate Court noted, was enacted “to promote the health, safety, comfort, or well-being of the community” by reducing the financial burden hospitals face when treating the poor by “reducing the financial burden on hospitals.” The Family Expense Act, the Court continued, codified the common law rule requiring parents to pay for their children’s medical bills.
The Illinois Supreme Court discussed the interplay between the two statutes. In reversing the Appellate Court’s decision, the Supreme Court held there is no “inherent conflict” between the application of the Family Expense Act and the Lien Act; rather, when adhering to the statute’s unambiguous language, it is clear that, where appropriate, creditors may seek a remedy under either or both of statutes.
The Illinois Supreme Court analyzed the plain language of both statutes to ascertain whether the two statutes are in such conflict that they cannot be simultaneously applied. The Lien Act provides a lien attaches to a “verdict, judgment, award, settlement, or compromise.” The fact that a plaintiff is a minor was inconsequential. Also, language does not condition the availability of the hospital’s lien on a specific award of medical expenses.
The language of the Family Expense Act also does not prohibit a health care lien from attaching to a minor’s tort recovery just because it is the parent’s obligation to pay the minor’s medical expenses, even where the parent did not assign the cause of action to the minor. Rather, the language simply provides a creditor with another remedy.
Therefore, the Court held there is “no inherent conflict.” The statutes can “easily coexist” by “adhering to the plain meaning of the unambiguous language enacted by the legislature.” Accordingly, the Supreme Court explained creditors can use either statute to protect their interests.