Joint Liability Of Spouses For Emergency Medical Care In Virginia
“What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.” We have all made that joke at one time or another. Much of the time, we don’t mean it when we say it; and certainly, almost 100% of the time, the person we’re saying it to does not think we mean it. However, in the law, this old adage can prove true, but not in the way you might initially think, and it could have an impact on you in a variety of areas of law.
Imagine that your spouse is the victim of a head-on motor vehicle accident. The other driver is to blame. Your spouse is transported by EMS to the nearest hospital’s emergency department and treated for serious injuries. Your spouse is discharged after two days and expected to make a full recovery thanks to the swift work of the medical service providers. Thirty days later, a monstrous medical bill arrives. Certainly, the offending driver has a responsibility to your spouse to reimburse him or her for this bill. But a settlement or verdict could be months or years away. Who is responsible for payment to the hospital for that bill?
According to Virginia Code Section 8.01-220.2, your spouse’s emergency room visit created an automatic debt liability upon you, whether you signed a single document with the hospital or not. The language of the statute reads:
Each spouse shall be jointly and severally liable for all emergency medical care furnished to the other spouse by a physician licensed to practice medicine in the Commonwealth or by a hospital located in the Commonwealth, including all follow-up inpatient care provided during the initial emergency admission to any such hospital, which is furnished while the spouses are living together. For the purposes of this section, emergency medical care shall mean any care the physician or other health care professional deems necessary to preserve the patient’s life or health and which, if not rendered timely, can be reasonably anticipated to adversely affect the patient’s recovery or imperil his life or health.
In plain language, “jointly and severally liable” means that each spouse is responsible for the entire debt. The hospital can begin debt collection against either spouse, or both of you together. It also means that the house you and your spouse purchased and had titled as “tenants by the entirety” is not protected against a judgment in favor of the hospital.
In addition, the definition of “emergency medical care,” whether the medical care is necessary to preserve a patient’s life or health, and whether the care if not rendered might adversely affect the person’s recovery, all rest with the medical provider.
Finally, this debt obligation is created for you and your spouse when the medical care is received, not when the bill becomes delinquent or when the hospital obtains a judgment.
In some cases, this tragic scenario might play out with parties who are going through the process of a divorce. Suddenly it may be crucial for a court to determine whether the estranged spouses were still “living together” at the time of the provision of the emergency care. The plain meaning of the statute appears to suggest that estranged spouses who are living apart may not be liable for their estranged spouse’s emergency medical bills.
The murkier question is what happens when the parties are attempting to live separate and apart in the same house.
Spouses Living Separate And Apart Under The Same Roof
One of the grounds for divorce in Virginia is that the parties have “lived separate and apart without any cohabitation and without interruption for one year.” Virginia Code Section 20-91(A)(9). In the last decade or so the state of the economy has brought an explosion of cases testing the principal of whether the parties can live separate and apart in the same house and qualify for a divorce under 20-91(A)(9).
To qualify for such a separation under the same roof, the case law recommends that the parties live in separate portions of the house, complete their own chores, buy their own food, and try to live as autonomously as possible. Ultimately, the decision comes down to the Judge, just as the decision on necessary medical care comes down to the doctor.
However, while these facts may allow you to divorce, there doesn’t appear to be any guidance as to whether living separate and apart in the same home will protect you from joint and several liability for emergency medical bills. Ultimately, it is a question of how comfortable you are with risk. If you are married to an Evel Knievel you may want to strongly consider a formal separation; however, the potential financial benefit of remaining in the same residence may outweigh the risk that your spouse becomes the hospitalized victim in a car accident.
Regardless of whether you’re in the middle of a personal injury case or a divorce, a consultation with an attorney will help you determine the potential ramifications of your future actions and assist you in sorting out what’s yours and what’s not– hospital bills included.