Connor v. Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center, Inc.

Decision Date21 December 1995
Docket NumberNo. 84670,84670
Parties20 Fla. L. Weekly S607 Barbara E. CONNOR, Petitioner, v. SOUTHWEST FLORIDA REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER, INC., etc., Respondent.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

Application for Review of the Decision of the District Court of Appeal--Certified Direct Conflict of Decisions Second District--Case No. 93-02766 (Lee County).

Jon D. Parrish and Thomas B. Garlick of Harter, Secrest & Emery, Naples, for Petitioner.

James G. Decker of Decker and Smith, P.A., Fort Myers, for Respondent.

GRIMES, Chief Justice.

We have for review Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center, Inc. v. Connor, 643 So.2d 681 (Fla. 2d DCA 1994), which certified conflict with the following district court decisions: Waite v. Leesburg Regional Medical Center, Inc., 582 So.2d 789 (Fla. 5th DCA), review denied, 592 So.2d 683 (Fla.1991); Heinemann v. John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital, 585 So.2d 1162 (Fla. 4th DCA 1991); Faulk v. Palm Beach Gardens Community Hospital, Inc., 589 So.2d 1029 (Fla. 4th DCA 1991); and Halifax Hospital Medical Center v. Ryals, 526 So.2d 1022 (Fla. 5th DCA 1988). We have jurisdiction. Art. V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const.

Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center sued Kenneth Connor and his wife Barbara Connor in 1993 for payment of medical services the hospital had rendered to Kenneth. The trial court dismissed the hospital's complaint against Barbara Connor on the ground that she had not executed an agreement to pay for the services rendered to Kenneth Connor. In so doing, the trial court declined to expand the doctrine of necessaries to hold the wife responsible for her husband's medical bills. The district court of appeal reversed and remanded, thereby giving the hospital a cause of action against Barbara Connor.

This case involves what is known as the doctrine of necessaries. At common law, a married woman's legal identity merged with that of her husband, a condition known as coverture. She was unable to own property, enter into contracts, or receive credit. A married woman was therefore dependent upon her husband for maintenance and support, and he was under a corresponding legal duty to provide his wife with food, clothing, shelter, and medical services. The common law doctrine of necessaries mitigated the possible effects of coverture in the event a woman's husband failed to fulfill his support obligation. Under the doctrine, a husband was liable to a third party for any necessaries that the third party provided to his wife. Because the duty of support was uniquely the husband's obligation, and because coverture restricted the wife's access to the economic realm, the doctrine did not impose a similar liability upon married women.

This state recognized the doctrine of necessaries in Phillips v. Sanchez, 35 Fla. 187, 17 So. 363 (1895). However, the disability of coverture was later abrogated. Ch. 21977, Laws of Fla. (1943); see § 708.08, Fla.Stat. (1993). Further, the responsibilities for alimony between husband and wife are now reciprocal. § 61.08, Fla.Stat. (1993).

The first case to address the question of whether the obligations under the doctrine of necessaries should run both ways was Manatee Convalescent Center, Inc. v. McDonald, 392 So.2d 1356 (Fla. 2d DCA 1980). In holding a wife liable for the necessaries of her husband, the court stated:

Changing times demand reexamination of seemingly unchangeable legal dogma. Equality under law and even handed treatment of the sexes in the modern market place must also carry the burden of responsibility which goes with the benefits.

Id. at 1358. Accord Parkway Gen. Hosp., Inc. v. Stern, 400 So.2d 166 (Fla. 3d DCA 1981). However, in Shands Teaching Hospital & Clinics, Inc. v. Smith, 497 So.2d 644 (Fla.1986), this Court declined to hold a wife liable for the husband's hospital bills and disapproved Parkway General Hospital and Manatee Convalescent Center. In reaching our decision, we first stated that it was an anachronism to hold the husband responsible for the necessaries of the wife without also holding the wife responsible for the necessaries of her husband. We also acknowledged that the respective arguments of both parties had merit. However, we concluded that because the issue had broad social implications and the judiciary was the branch of government least capable of resolving the question, it was best to leave to the legislature the decision of whether to modify the common law doctrine of necessaries. In a footnote we stated that the issue of whether it was a denial of equal protection to hold a husband liable for a wife's necessaries when a wife was not liable for a husband's necessaries was not before us.

Following our opinion in Shands, an equal protection issue was raised by a husband who suffered a judgment which required him to pay his wife's hospital bill. Webb v. Hillsborough County Hosp. Auth., 521 So.2d 199 (Fla. 2d DCA 1988). The court ruled that the doctrine of necessaries remained viable so as to obligate a husband to pay for his wife's necessaries and went on to hold that the duty was reciprocal between spouses. In two subsequent decisions, the Fourth District Court of Appeal disagreed with Webb and held that a wife could not be held responsible for her husband's necessaries. Faulk; Heinemann. In the meantime, the Fifth District Court of Appeal held that a husband continues to be liable for his wife's necessaries. Waite; Ryals.

The case before us today is in essentially the same posture as Shands. Yet, we are faced with a series of cases in which the parties agree that husbands and wives must be treated alike but disagree over whether the doctrine of necessaries should be applied to both spouses or simply abolished. Therefore, we have concluded that we must now address this issue in the context of equal protection considerations. Mrs. Connor contends that with the removal of coverture, the doctrine of necessaries is no longer justifiable because wives are now freely able to enter into contracts and obtain their own necessaries. Southwest posits that while the initial reason for the doctrine has disappeared, it now serves the important function of promoting the partnership theory of marriage and should be expanded so that both men and women are liable to third-party creditors who provide necessaries to their respective spouses.

The courts of other states have split on the proper remedy to adopt. Some have abrogated the doctrine entirely, preferring to defer to the legislature. See, e.g., Emanuel v. McGriff, 596 So.2d 578 (Ala.1992); Condore v. Prince George's County, 289 Md. 516, 425 A.2d 1011 (1981); Schilling v. Bedford County Memorial Hosp., Inc., 225 Va. 539, 303 S.E.2d 905 (1983). Others have extended the common law doctrine to apply to both sexes. See, e.g., Bartrom v. Adjustment Bureau, Inc., 618 N.E.2d 1 (Ind.1993); St. Francis Regional Medical Ctr., Inc. v. Bowles, 251 Kan. 334, 836 P.2d 1123 (1992); Jersey Shore Medical Ctr.-Fitkin Hosp. v. Estate of Baum, 84 N.J. 137, 417 A.2d 1003 (1980); North Carolina Baptist Hosps., Inc. v. Harris, 319 N.C. 347, 354 S.E.2d 471 (1987); Landmark Medical Ctr. v. Gauthier, 635 A.2d 1145 (R.I.1994); Richland Memorial Hosp. v. Burton, 282 S.C. 159, 318 S.E.2d 12 (1984).

Legislative action in this area has been just as diverse. Oklahoma and Kentucky have codified the doctrine in its original common law form, while the Georgia Legislature repealed the doctrine in 1979. Okla.Stat.tit. 43, § 209 (1994); Ky.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 404.040 (Baldwin 1994); 1979 Ga.Laws 466, 491. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes are those jurisdictions that have retained the doctrine in a modified form. For example, North Dakota imposes joint and several liability for debts incurred by either spouse for the necessaries of food, clothing, fuel, and shelter, but excludes medical care. N.D.Cent.Code § 14-07-08 (1993).

The fact that courts and other legislatures have treated this problem in different ways illustrates the lack of consensus regarding the doctrine's place in modern society and reinforces the position we took in Shands. Yet, our legislature has not chosen to address this issue, and we know of no circumstances occurring since our decision in Shands which would suggest that we were wrong in refusing to hold the wife liable for the husband's necessaries. Because constitutional considerations demand equality between the sexes, it follows that a husband can no longer be held liable for his wife's necessaries. We therefore abrogate the common law doctrine of necessaries, thereby leaving it to the legislature to determine the policy of the state in this area. We do not make a judgment as to which is the better policy for the state to adopt. We merely leave it to the appropriate branch to decide this question.

We quash the decision below. We approve the decisions in Faulk and Heinemann and disapprove those in Webb, Waite, and Ryals.

It is so ordered.


OVERTON, J., dissents with an opinion, in which WELLS, J., concurs.

OVERTON, Justice, dissenting.

I dissent. The common law doctrine of necessaries was born of the need to provide a legal means to protect and enforce the moral terms of the marital obligation. I find that the doctrine is just as important today, under the partnership theory of marriage, as it was when the doctrine was created under the unity theory of marriage. In this day and age, we should not weaken the obligations of marriage by eliminating the spousal duty to care for one another. However, that is exactly what the majority opinion does, and, by doing so, it places this Court in the minority of state supreme courts that have addressed this issue.

I agree that the common law doctrine of necessaries in its present form violates the equal protection clause by imposing a duty of spousal support only on the husband. However, unlike the majority, I conclude that this Court, as a...

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