Shands Teaching Hosp. and Clinics, Inc. v. Smith

Decision Date30 December 1985
Docket NumberNo. BC-307,BC-307
Parties11 Fla. L. Weekly 81 SHANDS TEACHING HOSPITAL AND CLINICS, INC., Appellant, v. Rebecca SMITH, Appellee.
CourtFlorida District Court of Appeals

David A. Roberts, III, Gainesville, for appellant.

Hal Castillo, of Lewis, Paul, Isaac & Castillo, Jacksonville, for appellee.


Shands Teaching Hospital appeals the trial court's dismissal of its complaint against Rebecca Smith for payment of medical bills incurred by her husband, now deceased. Although appellee's husband entered into an agreement with the hospital which bound him as guarantor for all charges which were not paid by his insurance company, appellee never agreed in writing to pay for the services provided to her husband. In its order, the trial court conceded that Manatee Convalescent Center, Inc. v. McDonald, 392 So.2d 1356 (Fla. 2d DCA 1980) and Parkway General Hospital, Inc. v. Stern, 400 So.2d 166 (Fla. 3d DCA 1981), both hold that a wife is responsible for her husband's medical bills, even in the absence of a written contract, but declined to follow that authority because it found that the common law imposes no liability on a wife for the necessaries of her husband; therefore the only way that a wife can be held responsible for the medical bills of her husband is by contract.

The common law doctrine of necessaries, judicially countenanced in this state by our Supreme Court, Phillips v. Sanchez, 35 Fla. 187, 17 So. 363 (1895), has never been explicitly altered by constitution, Court or statutes, to require a wife to be subject to an action by a facility which has provided medical services to her husband without her contractual assumption; see specifically Article I, Section 2, and Article X, Section 5, Chapters 61 and 708 of the Florida Statutes, and Gates v. Foley, 247 So.2d 40 (Fla.1971) (despite the reliance on such authorities by the courts in Manatee Convalescent Center and Parkway General Hospital ). The lesson to be learned from Hoffman v. Jones, 280 So.2d 431, 434 (Fla.1973), is that in the absence of constitutional or statutory authority reflecting a change in established law, the district courts of appeal do not enjoy the prerogative of overruling controlling precedent of the Florida Supreme Court. We also view the issue here as one which is most appropriate for legislative concern.

We therefore affirm the trial court's order, certifying conflict with Manatee Convalescent Center and Parkway General Hospital.

ERVIN and WENTWORTH, JJ., concur.

BARFIELD, J., concurs with opinion.

BARFIELD, Judge, concurring:

I concur in the majority's affirmance of the trial court's order and its suggestion that the issue in this case is properly one for the legislature. However, because this case presents so clearly the divergent views on the role of the judiciary, and because the majority cites Hoffman v. Jones, 280 So.2d 431 (Fla.1973), for a singular lesson, implying the propriety of that decision as a function of the judicial prerogative, I must separately discuss my analysis of this case and the reasons for my decision to affirm the trial court's order.

There are three possible bases for the liability of one person for the debts of another: voluntary agreement of the party to be held liable, statutory enactment, or common law rule. In Florida, the legislature has enacted no statute requiring a wife to be responsible for the medical expenses of her husband. Appellee did not agree to pay for the medical services provided to her husband. At old English common law, because she was not deemed capable of contracting and thus suffered discrimination predicated solely on her sex, a wife could only function in the economic environment with the assurance that her husband was available to pay her bills. The husband was therefore responsible for the necessaries of his wife, including medical expenses. However, at common law the wife was not liable for her husband's necessaries, because a married woman was deemed legally incapable of incurring any obligation independent of her husband.

In Manatee and Parkway the Second and Third District Courts of Appeal were presented with cases factually similar to the one at issue. In ruling that wives are now liable for the medical expenses of their husbands, even when they have not agreed to be held responsible, these courts have reasoned that, with the liberalization of the Florida Constitution and the various Florida statutes dealing with married women, the wife should be treated the same as the husband in reference to the necessaries of the spouse. These courts have attempted to "modify" the common law rule of necessaries "so as to equalize the financial responsibilities of each spouse for the necessaries of the other." Manatee, 392 So.2d at 1358. In Parkway, the court held that the only ways in which the wife can avoid this responsibility are to have dissolved the marriage before her husband's hospitalization, or to have somehow prevented the illness which required it. 400 So.2d at 167.

I have no quarrel with our sister courts' perceptions that a one-sided application of the common law doctrine of necessaries is an anachronism in our modern society. I do, however, have grave reservations concerning the approach taken by these courts, and the conclusions to which this approach has led. While I acknowledge the power of the court to abrogate a common law rule found to be inconsistent with constitutional or statutory law, that power does not include the authority to judicially create new liabilities and causes of action which did not exist at English common law prior to July 4, 1776. In my opinion, our sister courts have erred in answering a question not properly before them, basing their determinations on equal protection challenges raised by creditor-hospitals who did not have standing to raise such challenges and ignoring a potentially viable basis for abrogating the common law doctrine. They have ventured beyond their proper sphere of activity by attempting to extend a common law rule to create new liabilities and a new cause of action, a usurpation of the legislative function. In deciding this case I have attempted to avoid those pitfalls and seek by this opinion to express my views regarding the proper role of a court when presented with such a question.

At the outset, it should be noted that section 2.01, Florida Statutes (1983), originally enacted in 1829, provides that the general common and statute laws of England in existence on July 4, 1776, are of force in this state, except where inconsistent with our constitutions and statutory laws. Prior enactments by the Legislative Council of the Territory in 1822 and 1823, provided, respectively, for adoption of the common law and general statutory laws of England in effect "prior to" 1607 and "down to" July 4, 1776, unless inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States or the acts of the Legislative Council. See Legislative Notes, Sketch of the Evolution of Florida Law, 3 U.Fla.L.Rev. 74 (1950). "Common law" has been variously defined, depending on the context in which it is used. The term has been used to describe "that portion of the law that derives its force from custom and immemorial usage and not from statutory enactment." Day, Extent to Which the English Common Law and Statutes Are in Effect, 3 U.Fla.L.Rev. 303, 303 (1950). The term is often used to describe that body of law which originated in England and has been adopted, in various forms, in this country and others. Black's Law Dictionary lists several definitions, including "that part of the positive law, juristic theory, and ancient custom of any state or nation which is of general and universal application." Black's Law Dictionary, Fourth Edition, at 346. So, too, in this opinion, the term "common law" is used in several contexts, and must be construed within the confines of the context in which it is used. Courts, when they become involved in construction of the common law, lest they be accused of tinkering or worse, must be precise in their terms, logical in their reasoning, and restrained in their exercise of judicial power.

Under the doctrine of judicial restraint, a court is limited to deciding only questions properly presented to it and necessary to the determination of the case. Although in another factual context, a husband may have standing to challenge the common law doctrine of necessaries as a violation of the equal protection provisions of both the federal and Florida constitutions, appellant does not have standing to raise such a challenge. Were this a case where a husband was being sued for the medical expenses of his wife based on the common law doctrine of necessaries, the husband would arguably have standing to challenge the doctrine as violative of his constitutional right to equal protection. However, such a case is not before us. While the Supreme Court of New Jersey found, under circumstances factually similar to the case at issue, that a creditor-hospital had standing to raise an equal protection challenge to the common law doctrine of necessaries, I find its reasoning illogical and its conclusions incorrect. 1

Even if the court, properly presented with a valid equal-protection challenge to the common law doctrine of necessaries, were to find the common law rule inconsistent with the constitutional equal protection provisions, there would remain the question of the extent to which the court could properly modify the rule. There are several possible approaches: 1) The court might nullify the rule, 2 declaring it no longer of force in Florida, or 2) the court might extend the rule to create a new liability (on the wife) and a new cause of action (for the husband's creditor) that did not exist at common law. 3 In addition, it would be necessary to determine whether the modification would be effected prospectively 4 or retroactively. 5 Which course would best serve the needs...

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