[Ed. note: Today’s post comes from Dean Kathleen M. Boozang and Erika M. Lopes. Erika is a Seton Hall Law student and a graduate of Trinity College, Connecticut, where she majored in Political Science. Ms. Lopes is a research assistant to Kathleen M. Boozang, and formerly worked as a litigation paralegal specializing in both Class Action and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act matters for Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP.]
A Florida jury won’t resolve the issue of how to provide health care to severely injured undocumented aliens, but it may signal to hospitals that engage in “medical repatriation” whether there are any legal risks attendant to the practice. The case, Montejo v. Martin Memorial Medical Center, involves a claim of false imprisonment brought by the legal guardian of a patient transported by private plane in 2003 to Guatemala for rehabilitative care following severe brain injuries sustained in a car accident involving a drunken driver and two deaths.
Mr. Jimenez remained a patient in Martin Memorial Hospital for almost three years following the accident, incurring $1.5 million in medical bills, of which only $80,000 was reimbursed by Medicaid. As reported by local newspapers (here and here) the hospital CEO testified last week that the transfer to Guatemala was motivated by the fact that Mr. Jimenez missed his family and country — the medical staff came up with the idea to return the patient to “his own culture” where he would “be around his language . . . and  be in a situation that was more relaxed than an acute care hospital.” According to the hospital executive, the transport to Guatemala had nothing to do with the financial burden to the hospital of Mr. Jimenez’s care. While the Guatemalan health ministry agreed to assume Mr. Jimenez’s care, a Guatemalan physician who testified for the plaintiff claimed that Guatemala does not have the kind of rehabilitation facility required by Mr. Jimenez’s condition. In addition, the jury was presented with a 2003 affidavit from the vice consul for the Consulate General of Guatemala, in Miami stating that she had no authority to place Jimenez in a facility, no doctor to care for him and no way to pay for medical care he needed. Mr. Jimenez, 37, currently lives in a remote village where he is largely cared for by his elderly mother.
The guardianship plan prepared for Jimenez, filed short of two years after his accident, recommended twenty-four hour skilled care. The hospital intervened in the guardianship proceeding claiming that it was not the appropriate facility for the long-term rehabilitative care required. Responding to the guardian’s objection to the hospital’s planned repatriation, a trial court directed the guardian to stop frustrating the hospital’s plan for relocation, and directed the hospital to provide a suitable escort and medical support. On the day that the hospital was due to respond to a motion to stay, Jimenez was transported to Guatemala via private plane. An appellate court later reversed the trial court order, citing the insufficient evidence that the patient would receive adequate care in Guatemala, a requirement of federal law directing hospitals to prepare appropriate discharge plans for patients. 42 C.F.R. § 482.43.
The guardian’s false imprisonment suit against the hospital was initially dismissed after the hospital argued that Montejo could not demonstrate that the detention was unreasonable and unwarranted — a necessary element of a false imprisonment claim. The hospital contended that its actions were executed pursuant to a then-valid court order, and were therefore entitled to qualified or quasi-immunity. The appellate court disagreed on the grounds that the actions were not taken during the course of a judicial proceeding nor in an effort to prosecute or defend a lawsuit, but were carried out in the vindication or enforcement of a purely private right. The court concluded that affording absolute immunity from tort liability would be an unwarranted and improper extension of the litigation privilege. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the false imprisonment claim, and remanded to the lower court for a determination of whether the hospital’s actions were unwarranted and unreasonable under the circumstances.
The guardian is seeking the cost of Mr. Jimenez’s care and punitive damages from the hospital.