Justices say 2006 law places liability with agency that has custody at time of care
by Andy Marso, KHI News Service
The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that the Kansas Highway Patrol must pay the University of Kansas Hospital for medical treatment the hospital provided to an uninsured man who was brought in by state troopers after crashing his car in a high-speed chase.
In a decision released Friday, the court upheld a Wyandotte County District Court judgment finding the highway patrol liable for the costs of the man’s care. The high court said under a law passed in 2006, KHP was liable for the costs of treating Wayne Thomas because the state agency had Thomas in its custody when he was brought to the hospital.
“KHP suggests the statute is ambiguous because it could be read to obligate either the County or KHP to pay for Thomas’ medical expenses,” the decision states. “But there is no ambiguity — an agency is liable for the medical expenses of a person in its custody.”
According to the court decision, a state trooper stopped Thomas in Wyandotte County for speeding, and as soon as the trooper exited his vehicle, Thomas took off. A high-speed chase ensued, ending when Thomas crashed his car into a tree.
The trooper took Thomas in his patrol car to the hospital, where Thomas was treated for his crash injuries overnight.
The parties involved agreed that Thomas had no feasible way to pay his medical bills, which amounted to about $25,000.
But they disagreed about who should be liable for the bills.
The KU Hospital Authority sued Wyandotte County and the Kansas Highway Patrol.
The justices agreed with the lower court’s determination that, under K.S.A. 22-4612(a) of the state’s legal code, only the highway patrol was liable.
The Kansas Attorney General’s Office represented the highway patrol in the case.
A lawyer from the attorney general’s office attempted to argue that Thomas was not in the agency’s custody after the trooper who brought him in removed his handcuffs and left the hospital.
But the justices rejected that argument, stating that Thomas was under arrest and in custody when the decision to seek treatment was made.
“Here, because Thomas was under arrest and in the KHP trooper’s custody, he had no ability to seek medical care on his own,” the decision states. “He was wholly dependent on the trooper. Under the law discussed in past Kansas appellate decisions, this means a governmental entity became liable for Thomas’ medical care since he was both a prisoner and indigent.”
The justices noted that a 1985 case, Wesley Med Center v. City of Wichita, set a precedent that Kansas counties were responsible for medical expenses incurred following the arrest of an offender who could not pay, if the offender was charged with a state crime and delivered to the county’s custody.
But the justices wrote that the 2006 law “superseded” that legal precedent by establishing that the liability for medical expenses rested with whatever government agency had custody of the offender at the time the medical treatment was given.
“The Legislature chose words that departed from the holding in Wesley,” the decision states. “Instead of simply stating that a cap would apply if a governmental entity was liable for an indigent criminal offender’s medical bills, the Legislature chose to include language that designated custody as the trigger to that liability.”
Jennifer Rapp, the public information officer for the attorney general’s office, said the Legislature should revisit the 2006 law in light of the latest court decision.
“It makes little sense to have public agencies fighting among themselves over who must pay indigent care when the cost ultimately is borne by taxpayers one way or another,” Rapp said via email. “Perhaps a more sensible system, at least when state law enforcement agencies are involved, would involve the established process for making claims against the state.”
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