A Curveball for Minor’s Settlements
October 9, 2013 § 5 Comments
For those of you who handle minor’s settlements, here is what should be a familiar scenario:
Minor’s arm broken in a car wreck. Insurance company is to pay policy limits of $25,000. Medical bills to the local hospital in amount of $17,500 are to be paid from the proceeds. Minor is to receive balance of $7,500.
Not much to it, right?
Well, there just might be quite a lot to think about after you read Memorial Hospital at Gulfport vs. Guardianship of Proulx, decided by the MSSC on September 12, 2013.
In that case, the minor was injured in a car wreck and the parents were appointed his guardians. They petitioned the court to approve a policy-limits settlement of $50,000. They also petitioned the court to disapprove claims against the proceeds asserted by several medical providers, including Memorial, that totalled more than $80,000. Memorial’s claims alone were $71,000. The chancellor disapproved the claims, and Memorial appealed.
Justice Chandler wrote for a unanimous court, beginning in ¶ 7:
… Memorial has no lien against the funds. Unlike some other states, Mississippi has no statutory hospital lien, nor has this Court recognized a common-law lien under these facts. Indeed, Memorial does not argue that it has a lien, or does it assert a right to recovery through a contract or under an implied-contract theory. It does not assert that it is the beneficiary of an assignment of the settlement proceeds. Memorial cited no authority for its argument at the hearing that it has a right to a pro rata share of the settlement proceeds.
¶8. Memorial’s position in this case is comparable to that of the hospitals that sought payment of medical bills in McCoy v. Preferred Risk Ins. Co., 471 So. 2d 396 (Miss. 1985), and Methodist Hospital of Memphis v. Guardianship of Marsh, 518 So. 2d 1227 (Miss. 1988). In McCoy, a minor, David James McCoy, was hospitalized after a car accident, and his parents executed an assignment of all liability insurance benefits in favor of the hospital. Id. at 397. Later, the parents disputed the validity of the assignment, and the insurer interpleaded the benefits, which consisted of $20,000 in uninsured-motorist liability benefits and $4,000 in medical benefits. Id. The Court held that the parents had lacked authority to assign the uninsured-motorist benefits due to David. Id. at 397-98. However, because the medical-expense benefits under the policy authorized Preferred to pay all reasonable medical expenses to the entity rendering medical services, the Court permitted the hospital’s recovery of the $4,000 in medical benefits. Id. at 397.
¶9. In Methodist, another minor, Stephen B. Marsh, was injured in a car accident. Methodist, 518 So. 2d at 1228. At the hospital, his mother signed a document entitled “Hospital Lien” in which she agreed to pay Stephen’s medical expenses from any insurance settlement or judgment she recovered. Id. The insurer settled for the policy limits of $25,000 in liability coverage and $2,000 in medical-payments coverage, and the hospital claimed a lien on those funds. Id. This Court rejected the claimed lien on the liability coverage because the mother had no legal authority to execute any document binding Stephen’s estate without prior chancery court approval. Id. (citing McCoy, 471 So. 2d at 396). The Court remanded for a determination of whether the hospital was a direct beneficiary under the medicalpayments coverage and “due these benefits irrespective of any lien or assignment.” Methodist, 518 So. 2d at 1228.
¶10. In McCoy and Methodist, once the assignment or lien was found to be invalid, the hospitals had no further rights against the liability insurance proceeds due the minor, and the claims were denied. McCoy, 471 So. 2d at 399; Methodist, 518 So. 2d at 1228. Memorial does not claim that it has a right to recovery under a lien, an assignment, or a contractual theory. Memorial’s sole argument supporting its claim of a right to the settlement proceeds is that it has a legal duty to seek recovery from any legally liable third party prior to billing Medicaid. This argument does not avail Memorial. The third-party insurers were not legally liable to pay Memorial for the medical bills. McCoy, 471 So. 2d at 397-98; Methodist, 518 So. 2d at 1228. The third-party coverage at issue here was general liability coverage, not medical-pay coverage that reimburses the hospital for medical bills. See McCoy, 471 So. 2d at 397; Methodist, 518 So. 2d at 1228. Memorial does not dispute this basic fact. Because no law entitled Memorial to payment from the settlement proceeds, we affirm the chancery court’s dismissal of Memorial’s claim.
If your minor’s settlements don’t look like what happened in Proulx, you might read it carefully several times and start trying to figure out whether you need to do anything differently.
There are lots of ramifications flowing from this opinion. A few you might want to consider:
- Shouldn’t you open a guardianship and publish notice to creditors before presenting the final settlement proposal to the chancellor? I sent some lawyers back to the drawing board several weeks ago to do that very thing in a case remarkably close to what happened in Proulx. Why? Well, it just didn’t seem right to me that the parents could negotiate away their children’s money like that.
- If you represent the insurance company in a case where the settlement amount is under the statutory amount required to present to a chancellor, how are you going to advise the parents about all of this when (a) you don’t represent them, and (b) you have an insurmountable conflict of interest that precludes you from advising them?
- Why should children be required to pay their own medical bills? And if they should not, don’t the parents have a built-in conflict of interest in serviing as guardians, since they will likely be held responsible via guaranty?
- Would Memorial have been successful in its argument if the third-party coverage in this case was med-pay (¶ 10)?
You need to read this case and be ready to discuss it with the next chancellor you go before on a minor’s settlement. That chancellor will likely be ready to discuss it, too.