Medford attorney Matthew Sutton recently defended consumer Jay Ingersoll at a three-day jury trial in Klamath County Circuit Court against medical debt collection agency Carter Jones. Ingersoll had a low income and was eligible for financial assistance when health problems forced him into Sky Lakes Medical Center in 2019 to 2021. Sky Lakes is a non-profit hospital that receives state and federal funds. Nonetheless, Sky Lakes made $10,000,000 to $20,000,000 dollars in profit each of those years. Sky Lakes’ witnesses admitted at trial that it was required to use those profits to provide a public benefit, specifically including providing financial assistance to eligible patients. But Mr. Ingersoll fell through several glaring cracks in Sky Lakes’ financial assistance programs and ended up in collections over $14,000 in charges.
Mr. Ingersoll was uninsured, which Sky Lakes calls “self-pay.” Given that everyone else pays far below the hospital’s list prices—Sky Lakes’ financial services director testified that nobody pays them—it offers an “automatic” 25% discount to self-pay patients. The discount was only automatic, however, if the self-pay patient called and requested it. But Sky Lakes did not tell patients about the 25% self-pay discount so, like Ingersoll, they didn’t know to call and ask for it. By the time of trial, Sky Lakes purported to have corrected this policy and now applies the 25% discount as soon as it learns a patient is uninsured. Carter Jones nonetheless tried to collect the full list price amounts.
Sky Lakes also mislead Ingersoll and other eligible patients with unclear, false, and inconsistent statements about its financial assistance policy. He applied for and received financial assistance in mid-2019, reducing some of his medical expenses by 90%. Sky Lakes witnesses variously testified that such financial assistance approvals covered either the previous 12 months, the whole calendar year, or the 12 months following approval. In contrast, Sky Lakes documents variously stated that patients must apply for financial assistance separately every time they receive services and, as to Ingersoll, stated that his financial assistance would only apply for a few months. It did not even honor that date.
Each time Mr. Ingersoll went in for services, he would tell Sky Lakes that he did not have health insurance “but it’s OK, I’m on financial assistance.” No one at Sky Lakes told him that was not the case, let alone treated his statements as new financial assistance applications, even though it tells patients they can seek financial assistance in person and at any time.
For this and other reasons, Ingersoll fell behind on his payments and Sky Lakes sent him to Carter Jones for collections. His parents were elderly and ill. Caring for them increasingly required all of his time and energy after work. They passed away a couple years apart before and after the Covid pandemic, at which point he was laid off from his job. Neither Sky Lakes nor Carter Jones told him that he could still apply for financial assistance even though he was in collections, or that they would have to apply such an application to all the bills he had received during the 288 days before the application. Ingersoll asked Carter Jones that he be permitted to make $100 monthly payments, probably more than he could afford, but Carter Jones just laughed at him. It filed suit in March 2020.
Months before the trial, the judge granted summary judgment for Mr. Ingersoll on the Account Stated claims and for Carter Jones on its Goods Had and Received and Quantum Meruit claims, awarding all the damages Carter Jones sought. According to its attorney, Carter Jones nonetheless went to trial on the only remaining claims, for Action on an Account, because it wanted to make Ingersoll pay its attorney fees.
Attorney Matt Kirkpatrick, with support from Oregon Consumer Justice and Robert Le’s paralegal, Lucia Becchetti, joined Matthew Sutton as co-counsel for the trial in Klamath Falls on July 12 to 14, 2023. Voir dire included around 80 prospective jurors who came from up to two hours away. Many jurors were stricken because Carter Jones had also pursued collections against them or their family members.
On the morning of the last day of trial, the judge rejected Ingersoll’s proposed Action on Account jury instruction and prohibited any evidence about the reasonableness of Sky Lakes’ charges, saying she had already ruled, on summary judgment, that the charges were reasonable as a matter of law. The jury nonetheless ruled for Ingersoll on two of the six Action on Account claims. It also ruled that Sky Lakes did not charge Ingersoll interest, did not assign interest to Carter Jones, and waived any claim for pre-judgment interest.
Mr. Ingersoll is expected to appeal the summary judgment rulings and the four claims the jury decided in Carter Jones’s favor. He will also argue, in his related federal lawsuit, that Carter Jones is bound by the jury’s determinations about prejudgment interest and therefore violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by attempting to collect more than $5,000 in interest to which it was not entitled.