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Nebraska Supreme Court decision in squabble over $436 hospital bill leaves questions
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Nebraska Supreme Court decision in squabble over $436 hospital bill leaves questions


The Nebraska Supreme Court took up a legal squabble over whether city police or the county jail are responsible for a $436 hospital bill to evaluate a man to make sure he was cleared to go to jail.

The Chase County District Court said it was the city of Imperial's bill. But on appeal, the Nebraska Court of Appeals reversed and said it was the county's bill.

Which brought the case to the Supreme Court.

But, if others were looking for answers or guidance in dealing with similar issues elsewhere in the state going forward, Friday's decision by the state's highest court may have come as a disappointment.

Because the Supreme Court found a problem with the record, the justices couldn't resolve the legal uncertainty.

In a written opinion, Justice Jeffrey Funke said a declaratory judgment action wasn't available here because the record didn't show the existence of an issue that the court could settle.

But first the facts.

At oral arguments in December, Chase County Attorney Arlan Wine said it started on Christmas Eve 2016 when the Imperial police arrested a man for disturbing the peace.

At the county jail, he seemed pretty drunk. So the jailer asked for the officer to get him medically cleared first and had the officer take him to the hospital to be checked out.

"Of course, we had a bill for that examination, and the city of Imperial does not want to pay that. They feel the county should pay it. The county feels the city of Imperial should pay it. So that's why the complaint for declaratory judgment was filed," Wine said.

Justice Stephanie Stacy asked if there was anything in the record to indicate the man arrested had no way to pay the bill.

"Or did you jump right to the fight?" she asked, hinting at what the court ultimately would find lacking in the record in order to decide the case.

Wine said the hospital exam only was done to make sure the man was fit to be put in jail. Not because he had a medical need. And officials were familiar with him, he said, and knew he didn't have insurance.

"We figured either the city or the county would have to pay this," Wine said.

State statute spells out who is responsible for paying the costs of medical services for any person "ill, wounded, injured, or otherwise in need of such services at the time such person is arrested, detained, taken into custody, or incarcerated."

It also spells out who pays. Under the statute, the recipient of the medical services has the primary responsibility to pay through insurance or other sources, such as Social Security or help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Then, if the person was injured during the arrest, the law enforcement agency that made the arrest pays, not the jail.

But there is some question as to when a person is lodged. In this case, for instance, was the arrestee lodged when he was taken to the jail the first time?

Wine argued no.

"We have to pay for all medical expenses for our prisoners. But that starts when we have control of them," he argued.

On the other side, Imperial City Attorney Josh Wendell said it was the city's position the county had failed to take the first step, as Stacy pointed out.

He also argued that once the man was brought to the jail, he was lodged, and said the distinction is "a pretty important matter and of great potential import across the entire state."

In Friday's decision, Funke said: "Though we appreciate the importance of this case to the parties and the far-reaching effects it may have on other governmental agencies, no justiciable controversy presently exists."

He said without information on the record about whether the man arrested had insurance or some other way to pay, the court's determination of responsibility "would be purely advisory."

Funke said the court also is aware this may be a case of last impression, or last of its kind, as lawmakers are considering two bills this session, LB216 and LB455, seeking to amend the statutes.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or

On Twitter @LJSpilger.


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Public safety reporter

Lori Pilger is a Norfolk native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been a public safety reporter for the Journal Star since 2005.

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