Florida Hospital Lien Law Held Unconstitutional – Its Potential Impact on Personal Injury Cases
Florida personal injury attorneys and their injured clients are routinely left to deal with numerous important matters long after a claim against the at-fault party and their insurance carrier has been resolved. One of these pressing matters is the resolution of medical expenses, often found in the form of a hospital lien.
Many counties, including Orange, Seminole, Brevard and Volusia, have ordinances that permit "charitable hospitals" to impose liens against any money recovered by injured victims in all causes of action, lawsuits, claims, and demands arising from the illness or the injuries necessitating the hospital care. Such laws entitle the lienholder hospital to an action at law against their patient to recover the cost of providing the injured victim with hospital care and treatment, as well as any attorneys' fees and costs incurred thereto. These liens apply to civil cases such as motor vehicle accidents, slip or trip and fall incidents, and wrongful death claims. While not all counties in Florida have such ordinances, in the areas where they are in effect, they can have a serious impact on the net monetary recovery obtained by the injured victim. People who are injured through the negligence of others may be dealing with the overwhelming burden of their injuries and medical treatment and such laws only serve to add to their concerns at a time when they need to focus on rebuilding their lives.
On July 21, 2009, the First District Court of Appeals of Florida, issued an opinion in the Mercury Insurance Company of Florida v. Shands Teaching Hospitals and Clinics, Inc. that may ultimately serve to invalidate hospital liens. The Court held that Alachua County's hospital lien law was unconstitutional. Article III, section 11(a)(9), of the Florida Constitution provides that "[t]here shall be no special law or general law of local application pertaining to . . . creation, enforcement, extension or impairment of liens based on private contract…" According to the Court, Chapter 88-539, Laws of Florida, pursuant to which the Alachua County ordinance was enacted, was a violation of this article of the Florida Constitution.
Although this case appears to have been decided correctly, it seems to be in conflict with Hospital Board of Directors of Lee County v. McCray, 456 So.2d 936 (Fla. 2d DCA 1984), which rejected a similar challenge to the Lee County hospital lien law. It is also important to note that the Mercury opinion is not yet final, as there is time for the parties to appeal the decision or request a rehearing. Should this opinion stand, its implications could serve to be significant for accident victims. As such, I will continue to monitor its progression. Nevertheless, such opinions that may be beneficial and in the best interests of my clients are always a welcome site.