SARASOTA — A trial in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit that was expected to start in mid-November has been delayed by order of the Second District Court of Appeals.
Filed in 2011 by the three for-profit hospitals in the county — Englewood Community Hospital, Venice Hospital (now Venice Regional) and Doctor’s Hospital — the lawsuit seeks reimbursement from Sarasota County and the Sarasota County Public Hospital District for the cost of care provided to indigent patients since 2008.
In mid-October, both the county and the public hospital district filed an appeal to the appellate court seeking to overturn a ruling by 12th Circuit Judge Maria Ruhl denying the motion for summary judgment.
Both defendants had sought to end the case by arguing that the doctrine of sovereign immunity prevented them from being sued.
The doctrine of sovereign immunity originated in common law based on the idea that the king could do no wrong. That concept became part of American jurisprudence, which is based upon the English common law. Thus, the two defendants argue, without a waiver either by statute or contractually, neither one can be sued by the three nonprofit hospitals.
In her ruling as to the county, Ruhl decided that issues of material fact were present in the case and the case could not be disposed of through summary judgment. As to the hospital district, Ruhl indicated it was an indispensable party to the litigation and the case could not be fully litigated without its presence.
Upon the filing of the appeal, the appellate court issued an order staying all proceedings at the circuit court level until a decision is rendered on the appeal.
The stakes in the litigation are high for both the county and the public hospital district.
If the three nonprofit hospitals were to prevail, they could be entitled to damages in excess of $300 million. Any award of damages would most likely have to be repaid from the county’s general fund, meaning that county taxpayers would ultimately foot the bill.
The claims of the three nonprofit hospitals for reimbursement is based upon a bit of arcane legislative history.
The state Legislature in 1949 passed a special act that created the Sarasota County Public Hospital District. A special act is one that benefits an individual or locality as opposed to a law that has broader application.
That special act was amended in 1959 adding language that made it mandatory for the county to reimburse the hospital district for the care of “medically indigent persons.”
Additional language following those words is the cause of the current situation, because the act goes on to speak of reimbursement to any other hospital that provides medical care to the indigent.
Sarasota County enacted a local ordinance in 1972 that followed the special act, but without the mandatory language.
Adding to the legal mudhole surrounding the controversy is the Florida Constitution. The 1885 version contained a provision making the counties responsible for the care of indigent persons, but that provision was removed in 1968.
In July 2017, the Florida Supreme Court overturned what was probably the county’s strongest legal defense, holding that the special law applicable only to Sarasota County was constitutional.
Both Circuit Judge Kimberly Bonner and the Second District Court of Appeals had held the special act unconstitutional, finding that it treated hospitals in Sarasota County differently than other hospitals in the state.
With that defense shredded, the county and public hospital district are forced to rely on the sovereign immunity defense.
No date has yet been set for arguments in the district court of appeals.