Dignity Health v. Farmers (CA1 6/11/19)

The question here is whether med pay is subject to a hospital lien. (The court, following what it says is the usage of  the parties, says “medpay.” This may be a trendy new way to put it. So we won’t.)

Farmers’ insured incurred substantial medical expense at a Dignity hospital following a motor vehicle accident. Dignity filed a lien pursuant to 33-931. Farmers nevertheless paid the med pay to its insured rather than to Dignity. Dignity sued it. Farmers moved to dismiss, arguing that the lien statute doesn’t cover med pay. The trial court granted the motion.

The Court of Appeals reverses. The statute allows the provider a lien on its patient’s claims “other than health insurance and underinsured and uninsured motorist coverage as defined in 20-259.01.” That is the UM/UIM statute, part of which (now subsection J) provides for a med pay lien against the insured’s recovery in UM/UIM cases. So Farmers argued that “health insurance” in 22-931 means “health insurance motorist coverage,” i.e., med pay. But the court indicates that the reference to “health insurance” is separate from the “as defined in 20-259.01” language. The UM/UIM statute doesn’t use the phrase “health insurance”; it defines neither that nor “med pay.” 33-931 didn’t originally contain any exclusions to the hospital lien. Then, in 1988, health insurance was excluded. The exclusion for “underinsured and uninsured motorist coverage as defined in 20-259.01” wasn’t added until 2004; the legislative history from that time doesn’t suggest that this was intended to alter the “health insurance” exclusion.

Farmers also argued that “health insurance” and “med pay” basically mean the same thing anyway. (We trust that the argument was rather more nuanced than this but the court does not describe it in detail.) The opinion says that Farmers waived this argument on appeal, then addresses it. The contention is not consistent with the way the phrases have been used in the statutes and the cases.

So “health insurance” in 33-931 doesn’t mean “med pay,” Dignity had a valid lien.

A couple of style points:

“Had the Legislature wanted to exempt medpay coverage from the . . . lien, it could have done so.” Indeed so, but whether it did so was the point, and conclusion, of the opinion. That it could have done so is a truism. The court’s point, both rhetorically and logically in the context of its analysis, is that the Legislature, if that’s what it wanted to do, could have said so. A court that goes out of its way (¶5) to chide the parties about the sloppiness of their arguments needs to be punctilious about its own.

The court’s historical analysis of the statute gives us the opportunity to point out that its method of citing statutes is a bit of a mess. When first citing it the court, as has become its wont, uses the style “33-391 (2019),” including the date as if citing a case. And it adds its now-standard footnote: “Absent material revisions after the relevant dates, statutes and rules cited refer to the current version unless otherwise indicated.” We’ve all read that sentence, or its close equivalent, enough times by now that we think we know what the court is trying to say. And yet a statement with open-ended qualifiers at both ends doesn’t actually say anything. The court actually means: “We’re going to go with the version our research service puts on our screen without trying to correlate that with what was in effect at the time unless you tell us that we need to.” But if the parties don’t tell it that — if the question of revisions and version and dates is irrelevant — then why bother mentioning it? And if the court does — as here — mention them at length then why include a catch-all footnote up front suggesting that it might not? Court opinions are not manuals for the restatement of bureaucratic rules. If the issue is relevant to the case then it should be addressed but not otherwise. Even a relatively few years ago the court didn’t use this date/footnote form and yet we still managed to keep things straight.

(Opinion: Dignity Health v. Farmers)