Chandler v. Hospital Authority of City of Huntsville

CourtSupreme Court of Alabama
Citation500 So.2d 1012
Decision Date05 September 1986

Robert H. Ford and Daniel F. Aldridge of Brinkley & Ford, Huntsville, for appellants.

Donna S. Pate and Stanley Rodgers of Ford, Caldwell, Ford & Payne, Huntsville, for appellee.

Colleen Samples and Lloyd W. Gathings of Emond & Vines, Birmingham, for amicus curiae Alabama Trial Lawyers Assoc.

JONES, Justice.

Plaintiff Tammy R. Chandler appeals from a summary judgment entered in favor of Defendant Hospital Authority of the City of Huntsville (operator of Huntsville Hospital).

Two issues are presented on appeal: 1) Whether this Court should overrule Geohagan v. General Motors Corp., 291 Ala. 167, 279 So.2d 436 (1973), and allow a wrongful death action ex contractu; and 2) whether the provision granting immunity from tort actions contained within the statutory authority under which the Defendant hospital is organized is constitutional, as against an equal protection challenge, in light of four other public hospital statutes that permit tort actions. We affirm in part (as to Issue No. 1), because we do not overrule Geohagan; reverse in part (as to Issue No. 2), finding a violation of the guarantee of equal protection; and remand.

At 3:00 on the afternoon of August 16, 1983, Tammy Chandler's 15-day-old baby was examined at the Ambulatory Care Center (ACC) in Huntsville. The baby's symptoms were high fever, irritability, crying, and "grunting sounds." ACC's doctors referred the baby to the Huntsville Hospital emergency room. At 4:00 p.m., Huntsville Hospital refused to admit or treat the baby because Plaintiff had neither medical insurance nor the $54 emergency room fee. At 8:00 that same evening, when the baby's symptoms had become more severe, Plaintiff again took her baby to Huntsville Hospital, where treatment and admission were again refused. Finally, at 11:44 that night, Huntsville Hospital's doctors examined and admitted Plaintiff's baby. The baby died the next afternoon from spinal meningitis.

Plaintiff sued ACC and its administrator and doctors and Huntsville Hospital and its administrator and doctors, alleging that her baby's death was caused by the negligent or wanton conduct of these defendants. Plaintiff also claimed that Huntsville Hospital had breached an implied contract by failing to treat her baby with the degree of skill and care required by hospitals in that area, and had breached an express contract The trial judge dismissed the claims against ACC and granted summary judgment in favor of the doctors. No appeal was taken from those rulings. The trial judge also granted summary judgment to the Hospital Authority and the administrator of Huntsville Hospital, and stated the basis of his decision, in substance, as follows: A) In Alabama, a specific statute creates the right to sue for wrongful death. The Alabama Supreme Court has held that the wrongful death statute provides for a tort action and not a contract action for wrongful death (Geohagan, supra ); therefore, Plaintiffs' claim in contract is not valid. B) Another Alabama statute, Code 1975, § 22-21-137(2), provides municipal hospital building authorities with immunity from suit and, therefore, prevents Plaintiffs' tort claims. Further, said the trial court, § 22-21-137(2) is not unconstitutional. C) The hospital administrator, as an agent of the Hospital Authority, is afforded the same immunity from suit. Chandler appeals only as to the Hospital Authority.

with the United States government under the Hill-Burton Act, which provides money for hospital services to the needy. Plaintiff stated that her baby was an intended recipient of Hill-Burton funds.


We have made a careful review of both the facts of this case, with respect to Chandler's contract claim for the wrongful death of her son, and the holding in Geohagan, supra. We reaffirm the decision in Geohagan; therefore, we affirm the trial court's holding dismissing Chandler's contract claim.


The provisions of Article 5 of Chapter 21 of Title 22 ("Municipal Hospital Building Authorities") (Code 1975, § 22-21-130, et seq.) were enacted in 1961. Act No. 109, 1961 Ala. Acts. The Hospital Building Authority for the City of Huntsville was incorporated on August 3, 1961, under those statutory provisions now compiled in Article 5.

In 1978 the Huntsville City Council, by resolution, amended the certificate of incorporation of the Huntsville Hospital Building Authority. The amendment changed the name of the Huntsville Hospital Building Authority to "Hospital Authority of the City of Huntsville," but sought to continue the day-to-day operations of the Hospital under the powers conferred by Article 5. Therefore, concluded the trial judge, Chandler's cause of action in tort--a claim for the alleged negligence of Huntsville Hospital--was due to be dismissed, because of immunity from tort actions provided the Hospital in § 22-21-137(2) of Article 5.

Chandler argues that § 22-21-137(2), granting hospital building authorities immunity from tort actions, is unconstitutional because it deprives persons injured by the negligence of a hospital organized under Article 5 of equal protection of the law as mandated by the State and Federal Constitutions. This argument is premised on the statutory scheme reflected in Title 22, Chapter 21, Code 1975, which chapter contains five separate articles authorizing the organization and operation of public health facilities in Alabama, of which only Article 5 affords immunity from tort actions.

The immunity provision of Article 5 is found in § 22-21-137, which enumerates the "powers and capacities" of a hospital building authority formed under Article 5:

"2. To maintain actions and have actions maintained against it by others in any form of litigation other than an action ex delicto, and to defend any litigation brought against it."

The question of immunity for an authority organized under Article 6 ("County and Municipal Hospital Authorities") is addressed in § 22-21-178:

"No hospital organized under this article shall have governmental sovereignty or immunity." 1

Article 6 also specifically provides that corporations authorized under this article may sue and be sued, both in tort and in contract. § 22-21-179.

Similarly, Article 4 ("County Hospital Boards and Corporations," § 22-21-70, et seq.) provides that a county hospital board or corporation has the power "[t]o maintain actions and have actions maintained against it and to defend action [sic] maintained against it," ( § 22-21-77(2)). Article 11 ("Health Care Authorities," § 22-21-310, et seq.) allows a health care authority "[t]o sue and be sued in its own name in civil suits and actions, and to defend suits and actions against it, including suits and actions ex delicto and ex contractu, subject, however, to the provisions of chapter 93 of Title 11 ['Tort Claims and Judgments against Local Governmental Entities'], which chapter is hereby made applicable to the authority," ( § 22-21-318(a)(2)). Additionally, Article 3 ( § 22-21-50, et seq.), the statutory authority for the establishment of "Public Hospital Associations," contains no immunity provision. Thus, of the several statutes authorizing the establishment and operation of public hospitals and facilities (Articles 3, 4, 5, 6, and 11), only Article 5 prescribes immunity from tort actions.

This Court addressed the issue of discriminatory classification in Tyson v. Johns-Manville Sales Corp., 399 So.2d 263 (Ala.1981). In that case, Johns-Manville asserted that Act 80-566, enlarging the statute of limitations for bringing civil actions for injuries or deaths due to asbestos exposure, unreasonably discriminated against manufacturers and sellers of asbestos products by singling them out as a class and that, as a result, this legislation had an unconstitutional effect. Recognizing that inherent in governmental regulation is legislative classification, we pointed out that such classification is permissible if reasonably related to the promotion of a valid legislative purpose:

"[T]he Fourteenth Amendment does not deny to the states the power to treat different classes of persons in different ways. The classification must not be unrelated to the objective of the statute and 'must be reasonable, not arbitrary, and must rest upon some ground of difference having a fair and substantial relation to the object of the legislation, so that all persons similarly circumstanced shall be treated alike.' Royster Guano Co. v. Virginia, 253 U.S. 412, 415, 40 S.Ct. 560, 561, 64 L.Ed. 989 (1920).

" 'Classification is an inherent power of the Legislature but it must not be arbitrary or unreasonable. In order to justify interference by the courts with the wide discretion which the Legislature has in such matters, it should appear that the interests of those generally affected by the act, as distinguished from those of a particular class, require such interference.' In Re: Opinion of the Justices, 252 Ala. 559, 561, 42 So.2d 56 (1949).

"Sellers v. Edwards, 289 Ala. 2, 265 So.2d 438, 439 (1972).

"A statutory discrimination between classes is held to be relevant to a permissible legislative purpose if any state of facts reasonably may be conceived to justify it. McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 81 S.Ct. 1101, 6 L.Ed.2d 393 (1961); State v. Pure Oil Company, 256 Ala. 534, 55 So.2d 843 (1951)." 399 So.2d at 271-72.

Should a legislative classification burden the exercise of a fundamental right, or suggest prejudice against a racial or other minority, heightened judicial scrutiny is required and the "strict scrutiny" test will apply. Where statutory classifications do not involve a suspect class or fundamental right, however, as in this case, the proper standard in analyzing an allegation of unequal protection is the "rational basis" standard. Applying the...

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    • United States
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    ...employees. Alabama likewise recognized the incongruity of a discriminatory denial of justice in Chandler v. Hospital Authority of City of Huntsville, 500 So.2d 1012 (Ala.1986) and Peddycoart v. City of Birmingham, 354 So.2d 808 (Ala.1978) to be even judicially unacceptable under the applica......
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    ...death acts." Geohagan v. General Motors Co., 279 So. 2d 436, 440 (1973); see Chandler v. Hospital Authority of City of Huntsville, 500 So. 2d 1012, 1014 (Ala. 1986)(reaffirming Geohagan). Therefore, plaintiff may not prosecute a wrongful death claim based on a breach-of-warranty theory. Pla......
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